Land deal has rural residents worried

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For eight years, Jolene Lyons worked in the coal mines so she could buy the land where she grew up.

She started as a drill helper and eventually became the only women at Seneca Coal Company to operate the drag line, what she calls the biggest piece of machinery in Routt County.

She camped out in a leaky barn as she taught herself how to build her house.

When she finally did purchase the property, it had 110 acres of Bureau of Land Management land beside it: public land that her family's sheep and cattle grazed on for as long as the 40-year-old woman can remember. Public land that she shared with children from Hayden as a place to snowmobile, hunt and ski.

She was surprised and shocked when she learned the BLM land may be sold to a private owner and her family's grazing lease taken away.

"It is like taking a limb off us," Lyons said.

Lyons is among several West Routt residents who are concerned about a proposed deal between the BLM, Emerald Mountain Partnership and State Land Board designed to save Emerald Mountain from being sold to private owners and subdivided.

For more than a year, the Emerald Mountain Partnership has been working on a land swap that would allow the BLM to trade some of its smaller land parcels in Routt County for the 6,425-acre Emerald Mountain, which is owned by the State Land Board.

The State Land Board is charged with using its public lands to generate as much revenue as possible to support public schools, and in the case of the Emerald Mountain parcel, that means selling it.

Because it is BLM's policy to not sell land, the Emerald Mountain Partnership is pursuing a deal that ultimately would turn ownership of the Steamboat Springs property to the BLM.

To raise the $17 million it will cost to purchase Emerald Mountain, the partnership has contacted owners of property bordering smaller, land-locked BLM properties, based on a list of guidelines it created, and has given them the chance to purchase those properties.

Then, in a three-way transaction, the BLM would exchange Emerald Mountain for its small parcels in a trade with the State Land Board, and the land board would then get the money generated from selling those parcels to private owners.

In April, the partnership submitted to the BLM a list of 127 parcels that had willing buyers and could be traded. The listed parcels cover more than 17,000 acres and are worth $17.2 million.

Ben Beall, a former Routt County Commissioner and president of the Emerald Mountain Partnership, said the deal would dispose of largely inaccessible and scattered public lands and create a large chunk of land that can be used by many.

"I feel good about the process," Beall said.

But some landowners north of Hayden say the swap will take away public lands they have long used for hunting, skiing and horseback riding.

Rebecca Rolando, who lives north of Hayden and is Lyons' neighbor, anticipates the 40 acres of BLM land bordering her property will become private and inaccessible.

"I'm all for saving Emerald Mountain," Rolando said. "Just not at the expense of us."

'At the expense of us'

Deb MacIntyre never imagined that the BLM land next to her property would some day turn into private property.

MacIntyre moved to Steamboat in 1971. About a year ago, she bought property north of Hayden with her husband, Sean. They use neighboring BLM land for hiking and horseback riding.

"One of the real selling points was the fact it borders BLM land," McIntyre said.

Emerald Mountain is almost an hour's drive from the Rolandos' ranch. Rolando said her family and most of her neighbors would never use the mountain that Steamboat Springs calls its "gem," but they do use the BLM land that sits next to their properties.

Lyons worries the BLM land that is sold through the land swap will just turn into more private hunting grounds where, she said, trophy hunters pay big money to kill elk they won't even eat.

"This is free land that kids and families use who depend on this meat to eat," Lyons said.

Lyons allows hunters to go through her property to access the adjacent BLM land. Rolando pointed to land near the Beaver Valley Ranch, proposed for the swap, that is used by Hayden hunters.

"Everyone on this side of Routt County has to fight for everything," Rolando said. "What gives them the right to take BLM over here and sell it for Emerald Mountain?"

Underlying Lyons' and Rolando's concern is the frustration that no one ever contacted them about the swap or gave them the option to purchase the land.

Parcels being considered for the swap meet several criteria put forth by the Emerald Mountain Partnership, Beall said: First, the parcels under consideration are landlocked by private property and do not have public roads leading into them, making them hard for the BLM to manage and of little use to the general public. They are included on a list of dispersible properties created by the BLM in 1980. Second, the partnership looked at land that a single landowner bordered by more than 50 percent. Beall said the partnership also took into consideration landowners who leased the land for grazing and those who had the land fenced.

"We tried to look at this thing logically. We don't want to create any controversy," Beall said.

The controversy came when landowners found out their neighboring BLM property could transfer into private hands.

Rolando just wanted a chance to purchase the property. However, Moffat County rancher Mike Nottingham borders the 40-acre parcel on two sides, while the Rolandos border it on just one side. Because Notting-ham borders the land by more than 50 percent, under the land-swap criteria set forth, he had the first option to buy it, and he said yes.

Rolando doesn't understand why the partnership did not let all surrounding landowners bid on the property and sell it at the highest price.

"We would like to see it (remain) BLM or have the option to purchase it," Rolando said.

That couldn't happen, Beall said, because it is against the BLM's policy to sell land, so it cannot be bidded upon and sold as if it was on the free market.

Lyons feels the system favors the larger landowners such as Nottingham, who also borders the same 110 acres of BLM land as her. Even though her father, Roy Pitney, had a grazing lease on the land, Nottingham had the first option to buy.

Western Land Group Inc., the Denver-based company managing the land exchange, said there was miscommunication and it did not realize the Pitneys leased the BLM land.

Lyons said it was only after her family contacted the Western Land Group and Nottingham said he was not interested in the property that the Lyonses were given the option to buy.

It came as little consolation to Lyons. She said the $700- to $1,000-per-acre asking price is unreasonable. It is too high, she said, for a piece of land that is landlocked and has no water or electricity.

And she balked at the $2,000 fee it would cost for her to enter into the partnership's land exchange program. The money would cover the cost of appraisals and environmental assessments, but she said she would not get it back if the BLM decides not to trade the land.

Not always pretty

Contention from surrounding neighbors does not come as much of a surprise to Tim Wohlgenant, who works with Western Land Group, which did a similar exchange in Grand, Eagle, Routt and Jackson counties.

"There are going to be a few disgruntled people opposed to it. It's not always a pretty thing," Wohlgenant said.

To Wohlgenant, it is a not-in-my-back-yard kind of issue, and keeping small parcels of land such as the one next to the Rolando property under BLM ownership is not in the best interest of the community.

"The BLM wants property that people can access, not just a few individuals who own the land beside it," Wohlgenant said. "They want to get rid of parcels they can't manage. They want to get something they can use and that the public can use."

Because the land proposed for exchange is coming from a list of parcels the BLM targeted for disposal two decades ago, Beall said the likelihood was this land was not going to stay public forever.

"There are public lands you see out there that won't necessarily be public lands forever," Beall said. "Large acreage -- that will be public land forever."

The Emerald Mountain Partnership has submitted a list of BLM parcels that neighboring landowners are willing to buy, but the land swap is far from finished.

The BLM has to review and approve the parcels and then post notices that the land is being purchased. It is a long and involved public process that Beall said will give the public ample opportunity to provide feedback.

Rolando plans to do just that. There is talk of hiring a lawyer, and Rolando is working to form a group called "Citizens to Save Our Public Lands."

She is scheduling a public meeting for 7 p.m. Friday in the Hayden Town Hall and said the more landowners she talks to, the more opposition grows. Lyons is among them.

"My skin has gotten pretty thick from being a coal miner, and I will fight this," she said.

-- To reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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