A gem of a deal

Emerald Mountain exchange could close this week

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The road to conservation

A time line of events that led to the Emerald Mountain Land Exchange

- 1993 to 1995 - Two city committees begin discussing the idea of public recreation and trails on Emerald Mountain to complement the adjacent Howelsen Hill. A draft management plan is presented to the Colorado State Land Board. Stakeholders and landowners meet with the SLB, which explores the option of residential development on Emerald Mountain.

- 1996 - The Emerald Mountain Steering Committee is formed, with representatives from the city of Steamboat, Routt County, SLB, recreation officials, community members, impacted landowners and others. In future years, the committee evolves into the Emerald Mountain Partnership.

- Colorado voters approve Amendment 16, which changed the mission and structure of the SLB and creates the Stewardship Trust Fund, setting aside 300,000 acres of SLB land for uses including long-term preservation.

- 1998 - The SLB designates the Emerald Mountain Parcel as part of the Stewardship Trust Fund.

- 1999 - The Stanko family, with support from the county's Purchase of Development Rights fund, places a conservation easement on 140 acres of its ranch on the north flank of Emerald Mountain. The Gossard family donates its 120-acre property, above Howelsen Park adjacent to the Emerald Mountain parcel, to the city of Steamboat Springs.

- 2001 - The Wolf Run Ranch and SLB complete a swap of lands that Wolf Run purchased in the Yampa Valley Land & Cattle Project, thus consolidating the SLB's Emerald Mountain parcel.

- 2002 - The Partnership and the BLM's Little Snake Field Office begin exploring the idea of exchanging BLM parcels, primarily in Routt County, for the SLB's Emerald Mountain parcel.

- 2003 to 2006 - The BLM's Little Snake office identifies 41,523 acres of BLM land in Routt County, on 269 parcels, for exchange consideration. Through extensive public meetings, feasibility studies, environmental assessments and management plans, the pool of parcels across the county is narrowed to 123, totaling more than 15,000 acres of isolated federal lands. Details of the Emerald Mountain Land Exchange are drafted and finalized. The federal and state lands are each assessed at more than $11.6 million.

- February 2007 - Expected closing of the Emerald Mountain Land Exchange, which will preserve a 4,139-acre parcel for future public use and recreation.

photo

Lynn Sullivan snowshoes up the road to the quarry near Emerald Mountain in Steamboat Springs. The much-anticipated Emerald Mountain land swap is expected to become official at the end of this week.

— A transfer of lands that is more than 13 years in the making - and will add more than 4,000 acres of public open space to the Steamboat area - could be finalized this week.

John Husband, field manager for the Little Snake Field Office of the federal Bureau of Land Management, said the tentative closing date for the Emerald Mountain Land Exchange is Thursday. The exchange will transfer 4,139 acres of Colorado State Land Board property on Emerald Mountain, just south of Howelsen Hill, to the BLM, which will open the land for public use and recreation and preserve it from future development. For its part in the deal, the BLM will give the Land Board more than 15,400 acres of federal land on 123 isolated parcels scattered throughout Routt County. Many of those parcels are surrounded by private land.

The Land Board likely will sell those parcels for an estimated total of more than $11.6 million as part of a fundraising effort for Colorado schools.

Closing on the exchange would end a process that began in 1993 and involved extensive public meetings, analysis and debate.

The Emerald Mountain Partnership, a group of concerned community members and local government officials, led efforts to conserve the Emerald Mountain land from residential development. The land is east of Routt County Road 45, also known as Cow Creek Road.

"We're thrilled that it's finally about to close. I think it's a win-win-win for everybody," said Steamboat attorney Paul Sachs, who is chairman of the partnership. "It's been a very long process, but at the end of the day, it's an extraordinary gift for the city to have that amount of Emerald Mountain preserved."

Sachs has been a member of the partnership since 2002 and has served as chairman since November. Sachs took over for former Routt County Commissioner Ben Beall, who has been involved in the land exchange since 1993 and is currently traveling in China with his wife.

"Emerald Mountain has always been about community and the future," Beall wrote in an e-mail this week. "I will make this bet today from China that future generations will look back with amazement at the success of the project, due to the work of so many for so long."

Husband said the Land Board currently leases the land to ranchers in the Emerald Mountain area. The ranchers use the land for livestock grazing, and there currently is no permitted public use of the land.

That will change with the finalization of the exchange.

"We're going to manage the land for multiple uses," Husband said. "The grazing will continue, but the area will be available for other uses. We anticipate it will be a highly sought-after recreation spot."

Planning ahead

Husband said recreational uses for the Emerald Mountain land will be determined after the exchange is finalized.

"When this becomes public land, initially the area is going to be available for public use by foot access only," he said. "That's until we get our more detailed recreation planning done, which will look into specifics such as where to put trails. We will be coming out with more outreach information as soon as (the exchange) is closed. We hope to get that done within months after it becomes public land."

An environmental assessment of the exchange, prepared for the BLM by Boulder-based consultants Western Ecological Resources, lists four alternatives for use of the land.

Craig Robinson, open space supervisor for the city of Steamboat Springs, said of those alternatives, a "modified use" will be recommended.

"That plan has two different zones for management," Robinson said. "One zone is for a little more intense recreation, like horses, bikes and people, and the other is a backcountry area that is roughly two-thirds of the property where no bikes or mechanized travel would be allowed."

Robinson said public meetings will be held in coming months as the recreation planning process for Emerald Mountain moves forward.

"I think it's a great opportunity for the community to have the lands protected and preserved for recreation as well as wildlife," Robinson said.

Private to public

Some landowners and BLM lessees, whose property borders the small federal parcels, have criticized the exchange.

"There are some people who have had the benefit of having a BLM parcel that only they could access," Sachs said. "Now those parcels will be accessed by whichever adjacent private landowner is able to buy it."

"There were some winners and losers in the situation, based on your perspective," said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, a one-time member of the Emerald Moun-

tain Partnership.

Commissioner Nancy Sta-

hoviak noted the Routt County Board of Commissioners has never taken a position on the exchange.

Despite disputes from landowners, the result of the exchange is a much better situation than what could have happened on Emerald Mountain, according to Sachs.

"The worst-case scenario, and it was a probable worst-case scenario, is the state Land Board would have sold that land for its maximum value. You would have seen big houses and roads all over Emerald Mountain," Sachs said. "That was probably not a far-fetched scenario."

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