Delta denizens growl at proposed Bear Ranch land swap

Trail linking Carbondale to Crested Butte caught in controversy

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenDecember 2, 2011
The dust-up continues over billionaire Bill Koch's proposed land swap so he can further fortify the replica Wild West town he is erecting a dozen miles upstream from the coal his company mines.

The latest showdown went down last week in Delta County where people packed into a meeting room to promote and pan Koch's pitch to exchange over 1,000 acres that include an overlook of Colorado's largest body of water, Blue Mesa Reservoir, and a hard-to-reach parcel of Dinosaur National Monument in Utah for 1,846 acres that bisect his mountain paradise above Paonia Reservoir.
Bear Ranch in Gunnison County.
Photo by Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism

Because the land transfer includes giving Koch mostly Bureau of Land Management property, along with a few acres from the U.S. Forest Service, the proposal requires an act of Congress to get done. Former U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., introduced a bill last year that lacked some of the current offerings but withdrew it when opposition surfaced. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., and Rep. Scott Tipton, R. Colo., recently announced they will hold hearings on the potential land swap sometime next year.

The Delta County Independent reports that Paonia area resident Ed Marston (the retired High Country News publisher) called the deal “marginal at best” and that he explained how the preponderance of property Koch is offering is already protected from development. A leading critic of the proposal, Marston is concerned over its implications on trail access and wildlife management.

Koch — the founder and president of Oxbow Group — has cited trespassing and poaching problems on his 5,000-acre Bear Ranch as the impetus for the land exchange. After his proposed two-acres-for-every-one-acre swap received a rancorous reception, he recently sweetened the pot committing to buying Buck Creek Ranch for $3.2 million, adding access to Jumbo Mountain, rearranging the trailheads to the Ragged Mountains, constructing a link in the Crested Butte to Carbondale Trail, and negotiating new Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness access near Marble. Koch has also pledged to put a conservation easement on the parcels he receives to prevent their future development.

"I think it is a terrible idea to rearrange the public lands to meet the desires of one person,” Marston recently told the Delta County Independent. “However, Bill Koch has finally put a deal on the table that is at least worth talking about. I think it's a bad deal. Buck Creek Ranch is steep, heavily roaded and no substitute for the BLM land.”

County commissioners in Gunnison County — where Bear Ranch is located — endorsed the deal when they signed an agreement on Oct. 18 that grants the public a permanent easement across a portion of Koch's property to construct the Crested Butte to Carbondale Trail, a non-motorized path to the north of Kebler Pass.

But residents in Delta County — whose recreational options are impacted by the swap — are more skeptical. They question the value of land they would be getting compared to what they would be giving up, noting the lost access to Deep Creek, and they criticize the proposed new access point to the Ragged Mountains in comparison to the existing route.

The two-mile public road that now slices through Bear Ranch has a slight elevation gain, receives lots of sunlight that helps keep it traversable in all four seasons, and is maintained by Koch's staff. The area is cherished for its horseback riding, elk hunting, crosscountry skiing and hiking among aspens. Deep Creek, which is accessed from the road, is home to native, greenback cutthroat trout.

"If we are forced to trade this route to the Raggeds for the Buck Creek Ranch route offered by Mr. Koch as a substitute ... we are all losers," Paonia resident Douglas Gill wrote in a letter to the editor.

One section of the BLM corridor that cuts through Bear Ranch is only about a quarter of a mile across.

"The problem for Bear Ranch is when people are hunting, bullets don't know to stop at 450 yards. Because of the way it's set up and is so narrow, it's hard to not have trespassers, either intentional or not intentional,” Brad McCloud, a spokesperson for Koch, told the Delta County Independent.

Despite the obvious perils of bullets flying through the property, they at least fit in with the theme of Bear Ranch where Koch — who also owns the old Elk Mountain Lodge in Aspen — is relocating authentic Old West structures from Buckskin Joe's. In August, The Gazette reported that Koch paid $3.1 million for the former Fremont County landmark that includes roughly 30 authentic Old West buildings and the set for several famous cowboy films.

With another public meeting over the land swap scheduled in Paonia on Tuesday, Dec. 6, the stage will soon be set for Sen. Udall and Rep. Tipton — who both received campaign contributions from Koch-funded groups — to conduct their own due diligence before they take the issue to Congress.

Follow Troy Hooper on Twitter.

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