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San Juan National Forest releases appraisals in Valle Seco land exchange proposal

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)
Watchdog argues forest ‘ran out the clock,’ limiting time for review and discussion

A watchdog group has urged the San Juan National Forest to delay its decision about a controversial $3 million land swap with a billionaire landowner, arguing that the Forest Service’s delayed release of land appraisals has left little time for public review and discussion.

Colorado Wild Public Lands requested the appraisals in the Valle Seco land exchange Sept. 15, 2020, under a Freedom of Information Act request, but the information was not provided. The appraisals were completed in August, 2020.

The nonprofit sued the U.S. Forest Service in October 2021 for the records, and 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 land swap is in the Pagosa Springs area of Archuleta County.

Because a final decision on the planned swap is set for Jan. 21, opponents including CWPL and San Juan Citizen’s Alliance have requested the Forest Service decision be delayed and an additional public comment period be issued to allow time to review the more than 1,000 pages of appraisal documents and provide comment.

“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.”

According to the land swap, the Forest Service plans to convey nine parcels of federal land totaling 380 acres to private ownership.

In exchange, the Forest Service would obtain the nearby 800-acre Valle Seco private inholding owned by billionaire Kelcy Warren, which would become public lands. Warren proposed the land exchange.

Forest Service policy requires land trades to have equal value within a margin of 25%.

According to the released appraisals, the nine federal parcels totaling 380 acres are worth $3.086 million and the 880-acre private Valle Seco parcel is worth $3.080 million. The appraisals were conducted by William B. Love Appraisals Inc. of Cortez.

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

The Valle Seco Land Exchange proposes to swap 380 acres of San Juan National Forest land (Parcels 1-9) for the 800-acre Valle Seco private inholding (Parcel A), located in critical deer and elk habitat. (Courtesy San Juan National Forest)

The San Juan Forest has given the land swap preliminary approval, and a final decision is scheduled for Jan. 21. They say the exchange is a fair value, and the acquisition of the Valle Seco property inholding will protect big game habitat, benefit the public and prevent development.

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

If the land exchange is not approved, Warren has indicated he has plans 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 Land and San Juan Citizen’s Alliance oppose the swap. They argue giving up the public land parcels is not in the public interest because it eliminates designated roadless areas that buffer the nearby South San Juan Wilderness Area; removes public lands used for recreation, including along the San Juan River; and that conveying it to private ownership could spur development that harms the environment.

In a request for an additional comment period and delay of the decision, CWPL and San Juan Citizen’s Alliance assert the release of the appraisals by the Forest Service has been unnecessarily delayed since Sept. 2020, and that has restricted adequate time for public review and comment.

“We would like to get our own expert opinion on the appraisal documents,” the request states. “Because people are out of the office over the holiday, it has been difficult to contact experts, and those we have contacted are constrained by the very short time frame.”

Rickenbaugh said Friday the group was wading through the appraisals and has questions about private development, comparable land values and zoning rules in Archuleta County where they are located.

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.

To view the Valle Seco land exchange documents and appraisals, visit the coloradowildpubliclands.org. Documents are also available on the San Juan National Forest project web page at www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=57154.