Keeping Emerald protected

Land swap in the works to preserve mountain

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— The western backdrop for Steamboat Springs is cherished for its unspoiled terrain. No houses dot the aspen- and spruce-covered landscape of Emerald Mountain.

Local, state and federal officials are working on a plan to ensure the mountain stays that way.

A local group of volunteers committed to preserving Emerald Mountain is working with the Little Snake Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management to begin a series of land exchanges that could ultimately result in the BLM's acquisition of the 6,345-acre Emerald Mountain parcel. Emerald Mountain is now owned by the Colorado Land Board, which has given the Emerald Mountain Partnership until 2005 to come up with a financially viable alternative to privately selling the $16 million property.

The Emerald Mountain Partnership has spent several years informing the public why it is important to save the mountain from development. However, an earlier effort to gauge taxpayers' willingness to purchase the property revealed residents did not want to pay to preserve it.

The possibility of swapping BLM parcels for the Emerald Mountain land promises a second chance to save the mountain.

"If this goes through, Emerald Mountain will be protected from development," partnership chairman Ben Beall said.

He compares the possible end result to New York City's Central Park.

"It will end up being a reserve ... for future generations in the middle of an urbanizing area," he said.

But the path to preservation is not an easy one. A land exchange can take a few years to materialize, if it happens at all. Parties involved in the process acknowledge the challenges but hope for the best.

Islands for a mountain

The sale of relatively small and scattered BLM parcels in Routt County to private owners would generate enough money to purchase the 6,345-acre Emerald Mountain parcel.

Some of the smaller pieces of BLM land being considered for the exchange pose management problems, said Tim Wohlgenant of Western Land Group, the Denver-based organization facilitating the land transaction. They range from 4.5 acres to more than 1,000, with a median size of 40 acres, he said. Many of them are islands, inaccessible to the public because they are entirely surrounded by a sea of private land.

Those islands, however, are valuable to landowners such as John and Linda Patrick. The couple, who lives in Iowa, owns an 80-acre parcel in Routt County adjacent to a 160-acre BLM parcel.

They often take advantage of the easily accessible public land during hunting season.

A land exchange would turn over a number of impractical BLM parcels to private landowners like the Patricks, who could more effectively utilize the land, and place the Emerald Mountain parcel, a single block of land, under the BLM's protection. That block would give the public an easily accessible tract of land to enjoy.

Wohlgenant said 34 private landowners are involved in the real estate transaction, but he expects about 40 people would participate in the finalized process.

Western Land Group is working with the private landowners to take some of the pressure off the BLM.

The landowners are picking up the costs of environmental studies of the property they want to purchase.

Wohlgenant estimates they will collectively pay from $300,000 to $400,000. Landowners must go out on the limb if they choose to participate. They could potentially get no return on their investment if the exchange falls through, Wohlgenant said.

"There is a lot of risk involved on the private side, and a lot of uncertainty," he said. "There is no guarantee. This could not happen."

The value of BLM property must equal the value of Emerald Mountain at the time of the exchange. The mountain is currently worth about $16 million.

Building on past success

Western Land Group recently completed a land exchange involving 4,783 acres of BLM parcels in Grand, Eagle, Routt and Jackson counties. The three-year process gave 16 private landowners the chance to acquire islands of federal land that had been entirely surrounded by their private ranchland.

The State Land Board handed more than 1,000 acres of school trust property in the middle of BLM holdings over to the BLM. In exchange, the board acquired 520 acres of BLM land valued at $490,000 and $4.2 million from the sale of BLM parcels to private landowners.

The $4.7 million deal will allow the board to purchase new trust lands to replace what it lost through the sale.

Wohlgenant said the Emerald Mountain land exchange would follow the same route. He said he is optimistic about a repeat success in Routt County.

"We haven't done anything this big," he said. "This is pretty big in terms of acreage."

Managing, the federal way

The Emerald Mountain Partnership presented a plan to the community in 2000 that outlined how the community could manage Emerald Mountain if the partnership were able to purchase the property. Now, that plan needs revision to reflect the BLM's priorities.

The federal land management priorities of the BLM, which would own the property if the exchange succeeds, are slightly different from those reflected in the Emerald Mountain Partnership's original plan.

Coming up with a plan that suits both local and federal interests presents a challenge, so the partnership is asking the community to speak out on how it would like to see the parcel managed.

BLM field manager John Husband said the federal agency is looking at several management alternatives. He noted that the land exchange process provides several opportunities for the public to get involved.

"We manage for a wide variety of uses," Husband said. "We would be acquiring this Emerald Mountain piece specifically to try to preserve it as open space."

The BLM will carefully consider the community's desires when putting together a plan, he said.

The partnership has proposed a draft management plan that includes some of the key elements it, the BLM and the community have identified as important.

"Our primary purpose is to safeguard the land for the wildlife and agriculture," Emerald Mountain Partnership Chair Pro Tem Chris Young said at the partnership's annual board meeting last Thursday.

Recreation and education are also important, but they cannot interfere with the first two priorities, she said.

Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, who sits on the partnership's board, is encouraged by recent interest in the land exchange and hopes the public remains involved in helping to craft a management plan that complements the community and the BLM.

"(The BLM) indicated a willingness to work with us," Monger said. "We hope that it (the original plan) doesn't change a lot."

People who would like to comment on revisions to the management plan can visit www.emeraldmountain.org or mail their suggestions to the Emerald Mountain Partnership, P.O. Box 773598, Steamboat Springs, Colo. 80487.

Officials optimistic

The major players involved in trading federal land for Routt County's gem foresee a worthwhile conclusion to their efforts.

"We are very excited about the possibility of making this exchange happen," BLM representative Wendy Schmitzer said. "We really feel committed to this project."

An exchange proposal that will officially launch the process is expected within a month.

The partnership is encouraged by cooperation from the State Land Board and BLM, the Western Land Group's recent success with a similar land transaction and support from the community and the state.

The partnership anticipates the exchange may take two to two-and-a-half years and asks for patience from the public.

"It would be very optimistic to think that we would get it done by March 2005," Monger said.

And while officials are optimistic about the proposed land exchange, it would be unrealistic to think it is a fail-safe solution.

With or without a land exchange, Beall said, he is confident the path to preservation will end in an Emerald Mountain protected for future generations.

The mountain is not only important to the community, but to the state, he said.

"It's just a matter of how do we work through this," Beall said. "We're not going to give up. I think it's going to work, but if it doesn't work, I think there's enough momentum out there to find a way."

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