By John Colson
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) on Monday announced that the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), a panel of administrative judges within the BLM, had given the go-ahead to the controversial Sutey-Two Shoes land exchange deal, and that the deal had been signed and sealed that day.
The deal involves a swap of more than 1,200 acres of federal property at the base of Mount Sopris, which sits between two halves of the Two Shoes Ranch owned by Ohio billionaire Leslie Wexner, in return for the 557-acre Sutey Ranch in the Red Hill area north of Carbondale and 112 acres of ground in the popular mountain biking area along Prince Creek Road south of Carbondale.
The deal also involves 201 acres of public property in Eagle County with what the BLM called “little public access,” which will now become private property.
Wexner and his wife, Abigail, have been pursuing the deal for roughly eight years, sometimes in the face of opposition from area land conservation interests who felt the public was not getting enough value out of the swap.
One such organization, Colorado Wild Public Lands (CWPL), took its opposition to the IBLA and earlier this year won a stay of the land trade while the IBLA considered the issues involved.
Franz Froelicher of CWPL said of the announcement, “It was not unexpected,” though he added that the dispute over the land swap “may not be over.”
He did not elaborate, but said the organization would be reviewing its options in the near future.
The main question, for Froelicher, was how to keep working with federal land management officials in an effort to prevent future, similar land swaps in which wealthy private landowners seek to take ownership of adjacent public lands.
He noted that the Sutey-Two Shoes deal was initiated by the Wexners in a bid to gain land that was not on the BLM’s “disposal” list, which contains lands that are difficult to manage for a variety of reasons.
Plus, Froelicher said, his organization will continue to work against land swaps where they feel the public is getting less than the proper value for the trade.
“The idea is to try to get the appraisal process in front of somebody who knows what’s going on” and will investigate the CWPL’s claims.
In the era of President Donald Trump, who appears willing to turn over public property to private entities, Froelicher said, “It’s not getting any easier” to find officials willing to listen to the group’s arguments.
One reason for that, he said, is that the disposal of public lands often happens out of the public eye and does not involve lands known to the public.
“The issue doesn’t come up because it (public property) is being given away piecemeal,” Froelicher maintained.
The Sutey-Two Shoes deal, according to a statement from the BLM office near Silt, also involves donations by the Wexners of $100,000 to the BLM, to be used to create a management plan for the Sutey Ranch, and $1 million to the Aspen Valley Land Trust for long-term management of the acquired, now public properties.
Davis Farrar, a principal of the Red Hill Council that oversees mountain biking and hiking uses in the Red Hill Recreation Area north of Carbondale, said the council hopes to be a partner in writing the management plan for Sutey Ranch, which is adjacent to Red Hill.
“I’m hoping it will take a year or less,” he said of that plan, which he expects to establish a balance between recreational uses and wildlife conservation.
Concerning the work of writing the plan, he said, “We’re hoping for a robust public process” that allows all interested parties to contribute their viewpoints.