Paonia mayor Neal Schwieterman joked last Wednesday, "[This is] the first council meeting where libations could be legally served."
He was addressing well over 200 people who were seated in the Paradise Theatre, which serves alcohol, for a public meeting sponsored by the Town of Paonia on the proposed Bear Ranch Land Exchange.
The meeting site was changed from town hall to the theater to accommodate the overflow crowd. Even the theater's seating was not enough, and attendees carried chairs across Grand Avenue from town hall so more people could sit down. People still had to line the back and either side of the theater.
The meeting was to give the town council the opportunity to hear comments for and against the land exchange, known formally as the Central Rockies Land Exchange. The Paonia Town Council will then decide at their Jan. 24 meeting whether to endorse the land exchange or not. Only two trustees attended the meeting, Sid Lewis and a late arriving Lucien Pevec. Mayor Schwieterman was the moderator and town clerk Barbara Peterson took minutes.
Bear Ranch and Western Land Group have previously secured letters of support from the Gunnison Town Council and the Gunnison County Commissioners. Delta County Commissioners approved a letter of support with conditions. When Crested Butte Town Council was asked for a letter of support,ß they delayed action on it.
Bear Ranch and Western Land Group want to have as many letters of support as they can when they ask the Colorado congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. to submit a bill to allow the federal land exchange. The exchange would give title to six parcels of BLM and Forest Service public land totaling 1,846 acres to Bear Ranch owned by William Koch. In exchange the National Park Service would receive 911 acres at Sapinero Mesa for the Curecanti National Recreation Area and 80 acres at Orchid Draw in Utah for the Dinosaur National Monument. In addition, Bear Ranch purchased land for a proposed permanent motorized and non-motorized public access to Jumbo Mountain by the Whistling Acres subdivision and a new trailhead at Buck Creek Ranch for permanent motorized and non-motorized trails to access the Raggeds Wilderness.
Bear Ranch manager Rob Gill gave a presentation on the ranch and the land exchange. Bear Ranch is by Paonia Reservoir and State Park in Gunnison County. The ranch has three primary projects in their management plan. These include livestock and agricultural production, vegetation and wildlife management and a western village and family compound. The village will have a private retreat and museum and Koch's private residence.
By going online to www.centralrockieslandexchange.com, the public can read in detail about the ranch and the land exchange.
Next to speak was opponent Ed Marston, who first alerted the public about the land exchange. He has worked on the issue for 18 months. He read a prepared statement which was distributed to those attending. He asked the Paonia Town Council to write a letter to U.S. Representative Scott Tipton and Senators Mark Udall and Michael Bennet "setting out our evolving vision for the future of our valley and of our backcountry." Marston wants copies sent to Gunnison and Pitkin counties and land management agencies. "This exchange would badly handicap our ability to shape our future." He noted that the land exchange and the recent natural gas lease nominations, "Both dramatize this valley's vulnerability to outside money and power."
He continued, "We need to resist that influence, but we can't simply be against. As wonderful as this place is, we can't cocoon ourselves in it. We have to create bonds with other communities, with our congressional delegation, with the land management agencies, and if possible with Mr. Koch."
The majority of those who spoke were opposed to the land exchange. Each person who spoke was given a maximum of three minutes.
Professional photographer Celia Roberts spoke first. "I'm concerned about the [North Fork Valley's] future. . .What occurred to me when I first heard about this when Mr. Koch first bought the property, he knew about that trail." She gave an analogy that if she owned property near a railroad track, would she expect the railroad company to change the railroad track? "There are a lot of other people whose right to access this gorgeous country will be severely limited. . .The current trail is accessible to more people."
Caroline Metzler said it is really clear that wealth and power of the one percent is capable of acting in a way that threatens the access of the 99 percent.
Lynne Bear, who was born and raised in Paonia, said she and her husband, Charlie, spent many weekends at the Ragged Mountains. She has painted them many times and wants to continue to have the current access to the Raggeds retained.
Jess Campbell, who has been in the valley for 30 years, said he had testified at the Delta Commissioners meeting. He favors the land exchange stating Bear Ranch is a good neighbor "and if given the chance, will be even better neighbors in the future."
Vic Ullrey represented the Western Slope Constitutional Patriots in the North Fork, a group that has been in existence for two months. The 12 members are in support of the land exchange because it will be good for the local people and the nation in general. He said there are four accesses to the Raggeds and the land exchange will close one redundant access. He noted our area is surrounded by more than half a million acres of public land managed by BLM and the Forest Service.
Glenn Dahlgren of Paonia said the key issue is access to public lands. The new proposed access is too steep and inferior to the current access at Deep Creek. He believes the current access to Jumbo Mountain is adequate and another is not needed. His main concern is about the decision being made through federal legislation. He would prefer this be determined by BLM and the National Park Service after local public hearings.
Tara Miller said it is a real treat to ATV to the trailhead and then hike. The current access has a low elevation and a beautiful aspen stand. Bear Ranch has a cattle lease and grazing allotments on the BLM land. For her the issue is "access to our public lands."
Allison Elliot said the Jumbo Mountain access through Hawks Haven is no longer contentious. The Whistling Acres access has been taken out of local hands to decide if the access is appropriate, who will maintain the trailhead, the additional traffic and the neighbor's response. "When Mr. Koch bought those two ranches he was very much aware that public access divided them, and now he is trying to buy something that is not being offered for sale."
Hal Brill stated that Buck Creek doesn't compare to Deep Creek. He is afraid the area will be lost permanently to future generations. He is sorry that there is an "us versus them" atmosphere. "I only wish Mr. Koch would have come to us." He said Rob Gill and Tom Glass of Western Land Group have been nice. They wanted to buy a lot at Hawks Haven for a Jumbo Mountain access which the owners declined. "Land swaps are supposed to be in the public's interest. . .But unfortunately, in my mind, this does not compare to what we have at Deep Creek."
Sarah Sauter, executive director of NFRIA-WSERC Conservation Center, "We feel the Bear Ranch has not yet listened to the real concerns of this community. We feel they have manufactured problems and created solutions that benefit strategic allies and special interest groups. We have serious concerns about the land exchange as presented. We welcome to opportunity to meet with Bear Ranch representatives and explore solutions that would benefit a large portion of our community." Due to the "dynamic nature" of the land exchange the organization will not take a position until official legislation is proposed. However, they will not support the land exchange if it contains parallel motorized and nonmotorized trails. Congressional mandated land exchanges create a lack of transparency and public review. "Privately funded land reviews are not good enough," Sauter said.
Tom Ricketts said giving up access to public lands is short-sighted and not a good alternative.
Bob Shettel said the Back Country Anglers are opposed.
Elaine Brett said the land exchange is about Koch's privacy, not about answering the public's need.
Jon Lee of Somerset owns property by Bear Ranch and thinks the land exchange would be a mistake. He said he can drive to the Deep Creek access and wants to keep the current access.
Sam Brown said just having two trail accesses through Buck Creek Ranch is not a good deal for citizens. If people get off the trail, they will be trespassing on private property.
Tracy Tooker said she and her family have worked for Bill Koch and that he is kind, generous, sharing and cares for his employees and the community.
Frank Mastrullo said Buck Creek Ranch offers great potential and an excellent access to the Raggeds.
Sarah Bishop owns a ranch above Paonia. A county road splits her ranch. She is opposed to setting a bad precedent by approving the land exchange. She suggested the owners and managers of Bear Ranch become part of the community and get to know their neighbors.
Randy Campbell said it is fundamentally wrong for Koch to acquire public land on his own initiative. The public land agencies did not initiate this land exchange.
Shawn LaBounty said he and others have helped to create the problem by keeping the area to themselves. "There's hardly any place worth going in this county or this area that is not on a nasty dirt road. . .I feel bad for this whole process because it's tough when you hold every card except the two good ones. One is the trust of the people. . .The fact is this land isn't coming back. It's lost. It's gone. . .That country is what I live for." When he gets off work as a plumber he flies up to the BLM land. "These are the places we must hold dear. Not for us, but for our kids."
The Paonia Town Council meets next Tuesday to discuss their response to the proposed land exchange. Bear Ranch wants a bill introduced in the U.S. Congress in this first quarter.blog comments powered by Disqus