Steamboat Springs Routt County Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said the Emerald Mountain Partnership could have done more to inform the public about the proposed Emerald Mountain land swap.
Stahoviak's comments came after almost three hours of presentations and public input at a Monday night meeting on the controversial proposal. Ranchers, environmental organizations, adjacent landowners, recreational enthusiasts and aides representing U.S. congressmen were among the more than 130 people that packed into Centennial Hall.
Stahoviak said more than a year ago she was hearing concerns that landowners were not being contacted about adjacent Bureau of Land Management property being included in the trade.
"I think all of us in this room agree the partnership could have done a better job in its public outreach," she said. "I don't think any of us realized how many questions and concerns were going to be raised."
Stahoviak stressed to the audience that the Routt County commissioners are not the ones who will make the decision on the land exchange and that the commissioners will need to digest the information before passing along their recommendation to the BLM.
Since May, the Emerald Mountain Partnership, which is engineering a trade that would preserve the 6,300-acre Emerald Mountain, has been at odds with a grass-roots group that fears the exchange will turn public land used by people in smaller Routt County communities into private land.
Members of Citizens to Save Our Public Lands said they were not notified that adjacent BLM land was going to be sold. They raised concerns about the partnership's tactics in deciding who could purchase the land and the choice to use an outside company, Western Land Group, to facilitate the trade.
Roughly 14,800 acres of scattered BLM parcels would be sold into private ownership as part of a three-way transaction in which the State Land Board, which owns Emerald Mountain, would give the mountain to the BLM for money generated by the BLM's sale.
Beverly Rave of the State Land Board said the state agency is committed to selling its share of Emerald Mountain.
Fred Conrath of BLM said the land being considered for the trade was tagged for disposal years ago. Conrath said most of pieces on the list have no public access, are hard to manage and often lead to trespassing on private property.
The opposition group asked the partnership to look at other alternatives. Maynard Short said the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was interested in purchasing part of the mountain to preserve a elk herd. Emerald Mountain also had seven qualified bids that were investigated and then ignored, Short said.
"This swap is being called a model for future land swaps. That is another name for 'legal precedent,'" Short said. "When you think about this land swap, remember it is not just a $15 million decision. With the rest of the acreage of BLM in Routt County to follow, a total of some 80,000 acres, it becomes more like a $100 million-plus decision that will be here long after this present board."
Steamboat Springs City Council Pro Tempore Paul Strong represented the Emerald Mountain Partnership at Monday's meeting. If the land exchange is successful, he said, 6,300 acres of public accessible land would be within a 10-mile drive for 70 percent of Routt County's residents. Just 3,698 acres of the 14,800 acres proposed in the trade have public access, he said.
Strong questioned the opposition group's motives. He showed the audience maps indicating that group members owned land adjacent to BLM property.
" I don't blame them (for opposing the trade), I would like to save (BLM land) if I lived next to it. But it doesn't benefit anyone else but the three adjacent property owners," Strong said. "We need to be looking at what is best for all the citizens in Routt County. Lands that all of us can use."
The Yampa Valley Community Alliance, the local chapter of the Sierra Club, the Steamboat Springs Nordic Council and the Routt County Riders bicycle club all voiced support for the land exchange.
Lynn Abbot, a life-long resident of Routt County, ask the commissioners to look at the bigger picture.
"I think the communities that thrive are the ones that are able to protect and preserve," Abbot said. "At the end of the next century, if we do this right now, no matter how congested our valley is, we will have this one gem in the middle of the county."
Rebecca Rolando, whose land sits next to a 40-acre parcel proposed in the trade, said the partnership's dream of preserving the backside of Emerald Mountain has turned into a nightmare for residents. Rolando, who heads the opposition group, said the group has more than 600 signatures opposing the land swap. Close to 40 people indicated they were in opposition to the trade at Monday's meeting.
"We represent farmers and ranchers that are being forced into buying BLM lands they can't afford. We represent citizens from these small communities that enjoy using the BLM lands that are in close proximity to our towns. We do not have the recreational riches that Steamboat offers. We would not drive into Steamboat and use Emerald Mountain," Rolando said.
Many residents got up to echo Rolando' statement. Ranchers such as Mary Murphy said the estimated asking price of $1,000 per acre it too much for what the land would produce. Murphy said her family is in the land exchange for fear of what would happen if the BLM decides to dispose of the land in the future.
She talked about the expenses potential landowners face with fees for environmental, cultural and wildlife surveys and the risk of having to wait for an appraisal.
"When the appraisal comes in and we can't buy it, the only one going to benefit is Western Land Group. We are not paying a $1,000 an acre. We can't afford to, not if you are going to live off your cattle."
Other residents said the process gives preference to wealthier landowners. One resident said 50 percent of the land in the exchange goes to massive landowners such as Cross Mountain, Smith Rancho and Nottingham Land and Livestock.
County Commissioner Doug Monger, who also is on the Emerald Mountain Partnership board, defended the board's action. If the BLM had let people bid on the property instead of giving first right of refusal to the adjacent landowner with the most bordering property or the one with the grazing lease, Monger said, the cost of land would have been too expensive for most ranchers and more likely to be developed.
The goal was to preserve the agricultural uses and open space, he said, and many of the potential landowners will have conservation easements on the land.