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Wexner fight not over, new group plans appeal

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John Colson

Sopris Sun Correspondent

Organizers say they are likely to appeal the recent denial of at least one of three protests filed over a controversial land swap between the federal Bureau of Land Management and an Aspen couple, Leslie and Abigail Wexner, involving land at the base of Mt. Sopris near Carbondale.

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The appeal, according to area resident Anne Rickenbaugh, would be based on arguments that the BLM undervalued the public lands included in the exchange, by calculating the public lands’ value according to appraisal standards that assumed public ownership, instead of appraisals based on private-land values.

“They didn’t apply the free-market standards at all,” said Rickenbaugh, “even though they could have.”

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Rickenbaugh is the board secretary of the Colorado Wild Public Lands, Inc. (CWPL),  a relatively new organization which has members throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, which filed one of the protests over the land swap.

The two other protests were filed by individual long time residents — Linda Froning of Carbondale and Gregory Durrett of Glenwood Springs. Froning said this week she is not planning to appeal the BLM’s rejection of her protest. Durrett could not be reached for comment.

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A Denver attorney working with the CWPL, Neil Levine, said the final decision on launching an appeal has yet to be made.

“My sense is, at least today, the leaning is that we will,” said Levine on Monday. The deadline for filing a notice of plans to appeal, is Dec. 17. The actual appeal, which would be heard by the Interior Board of Land Appeals in Arlington, Va., would then have a deadline of Jan. 17, 2015.

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The BLM approved the land exchange, which has split the normally cohesive Roaring Fork land conservation community, on June 19, and issued a decision denying the protests on Nov. 19.

Under the provisions of the swap, the Wexners are to take ownership of three parcels of formerly public lands totaling 1,268 acres. The Wexners own Two Shoes Ranch in the Prince Creek area.

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In exchange, the public is to receive the 557-acre Sutey Ranch adjacent to the Red Hill Recreation Area north of Carbondale. Red Hill is a popular recreation destination for hikers and mountain bikers. It is managed by the BLM, so the exchange provides continuity in ownership.

The public also is to get title to 112 acres along Prince Creek Road that can be incorporated into a popular trail network on lands managed by the BLM.

The Wexners also contributed $100,000 to cover the BLM’s costs to develop a management plan for the news lands and $1 million for long-term management of the lands.

Along with using the wrong appraisal process, Rickenbaugh told The Sopris Sun in a recent interview, the BLM committed procedural errors in adding the Sutey Ranch to the deal, which occurred late in the process of considering the swap.

Rickenbaugh said she and others in the CWPL are worried that filing an appeal might be a waste of time, out of concern that the BLM already has made up its bureaucratic mind on the issue.

But when asked why the group would bother, in that case, she replied, “You bother because it’s building the record,” and the case might ultimately end up in federal court.

Speaking about the CWPL in general, Rickenbaugh said, “We’re not anti-land-exchange. We’re public-lands advocates.”

And, she said, “We think the public is really getting the short end of the stick” in the Wexner exchange.

Among other issues, she said, the BLM has not provided much in the way of environmental protection for endangered or threatened plant species, such as Harrington’s penstemon (also known as Harrington’s beardstongue), which can be found in the area.

Nor are there adequate protections for archeological sites in the area affected by the swap, she said, adding that it is believed there are several in the affected area.

Overall, she said, “The land exchange is a proponent-driven land exchange,” meaning the process began with a proposal from the Wexners, instead of the BLM, that the CWPL maintains was not closely analyzed either for possible environmental impacts or future exploitation if minerals are found beneath the surface.

“What’s to say, two generations down the line, they find the next kind of oil or gas, and decide to drill?” she asked rhetorically. “Or, worse yet, they put in a Victoria’s Secret mall up there?”

Victoria’s Secret is one of the brands controlled by Wexner’s corporation, L Brands, formerly known as Limited Brands and, before that, The Limited.

Attorney Levine, acknowledging that his clients are worried about whether the appeal is worth pursuing given the decisions of the Colorado BLM office, said he thinks the national IBLA may be less inclined toward the swap.

“I think it’s a little more removed than the protest denial,” he said, noting that the denial came from “the people with the most interest in the exchange.”

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