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San Juan Forest approves land swap with billionaire landowner in Archuleta County

The San Juan National Forest plans a land swap with a private landowner to obtain the 800-acre Valle Seco parcel that is in critical big game habitat. (Courtesy San Juan National Forest)
Controversial deal was opposed by environmental groups and triggered Freedom of Information Act lawsuit

The San Juan National Forest has agreed to swap nine parcels of public land totaling 379 acres for an 800-acre private inholding owned by energy tycoon and billionaire Kelcy Warren.

The federal government’s controversial Valle Seco land exchange in the Pagosa Ranger District conveys the public lands to ownership by Warren and two associates and chips in $30,000 in cash.

The Forest Service gains the Valle Seco inholding critical for wildlife habitat. It was previously targeted for potential private development.

“Acquisition of the 880-acre inholding in the Valle Seco area will secure crucial winter range for elk and mule deer and an important wildlife migration corridor between the San Juan Mountains and lower elevation winter range located on National Forest System lands, the Southern Ute Indian Reservation, Jicarilla Apache Reservation and private lands,” a June 29 Forest Service news release says.

To address the loss in roadless areas from the land swap, the national forest agreed to expand the Winter Hills/Serviceberry Mountain Colorado Roadless Area near South San Juan Wilderness Area by 4,623 acres.

The value of the federal and private parcels were established by appraisals prepared in accordance with federal regulations. The 800-acre private Valle Seco parcel was valued at $3,080,000, and the nine federal parcels were appraised at $3,050,000. The appraisals were conducted by William B. Love Appraisals Inc. of Cortez.

Because the private land came in $30,000 higher than the federal land, the government paid the $30,000 difference to Warren. Forest Service policy requires land trades to have equal value within a margin of 25%.

The Valle Seco land exchange swapped 379 acres of San Juan National Forest land (Parcels 1-9) for the 800-acre Valle Seco private inholding (Parcel A). (Courtesy of San Juan National Forest)
Boot Jack Ranch lies just below the west side of Wolf Creek Pass and east of Pagosa Springs. Property owners northeast of Pagosa Springs, including Boot Jack Ranch, want more land to ranch and recreate and recently received a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The public-private land exchange was opposed by environmental groups, including San Juan Citizens Alliance of Durango and Colorado Wild Public Lands of Basalt. It also triggered a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Forest Service for appraisal documents.

They argued that giving up the public land parcels was not in the public interest because it eliminated designated roadless areas that buffer the nearby South San Juan Wilderness Area; removed public land used for recreation, including along the San Juan River; and that by conveying it to private ownership, it could spur development that harmed the environment.

The Forest Service said the exchange was a fair value, and the acquisition of the Valle Seco property inholding will protect big game habitat, benefit the public and prevent development.

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“It is a crucial migratory corridor, and we don’t want to see it developed,” said San Juan National Forest Supervisor Kara Chadwick.

If the land exchange was not approved, Warren had indicated he has planned to fence the Valle Seco property, establish an elk farm, build a hunting lodge and apply for year-round motorized access from the Forest Service, according to the environmental assessment.

Colorado Wild Public Lands sued the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 to obtain appraisals requested on Sept. 15, 2020, under the Freedom of Information Act. On Dec. 22, 2021, while the lawsuit was pending, the Forest Service released the appraisal documents, more than a year after the FOIA request. The appraisals were completed in August 2020.

CWPL and San Juan Citizens Alliance requested an additional comment period and delay of the final land exchange decision, asserting the release of the appraisals by the Forest Service has been unnecessarily delayed since September 2020, and that has restricted adequate time for public review and comment on the 1,000 pages of appraisal documents.

“We received a giant document dump and need time to analyze it,” said Anne Rickenbaugh of CWPL. “They really strung us along and ran out the clock.”

On Jan. 7, the Forest Service denied the request by public lands advocates to extend a comment period for the land exchange.

Deputy Regional Forester Jacqueline Buchanan said regulations do not allow for extension of objection filing periods, and that the comment period had already been extended for 30 days.

The appraisal documents were released after the official comment period had expired.

The late release of the appraisals and denial of additional public comment to review them showed a lack transparency by the government agency, said Jimbo Buickerood, San Juan Citizens lands and forest protection program manager.

“They want to just move it along, and were not forthcoming,” he said. “We were shortchanged on information. They never held public meetings on the project or had open-invite tours. Out of fairness, let the public get the information with enough time.”

Under the land exchange, Warren’s Boot Jack Ranch would obtain three federal land parcels totaling 192 acres. David K. Skidmore and Cynthia A. Sites would receive three parcels totaling 133 acres, and David C. Lindner would receive three parcels totaling 58 acres.

According to the Archuleta County Assessor’s Office, Warren purchased the 800-acre Valle Seco property in 2014 for $4 million.

The Decision Notice authorizes the land exchange to occur but does not start the actual land exchange. It will take time before the actual change in ownership of the parcels will occur. The 880-acre Valle Seco land will not be open to the public until the Forest Service acquires ownership of the parcel.

The environmental assessment, final decision, impact finding and other relevant documents and maps are available on the project webpage at: http://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57154.

Additional Valle Seco land exchange documents and appraisals are available at coloradowildpubliclands.org.