Accusations flying over Bear Ranch expansion

Rep. John Salazar

Although U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., said he will wait for the next Congress to move a bill on a western Colorado land trade, there’s no truce in the fight sparked by the legislation.

The battle over Ragged Mountain grew more hostile even as one participant suggested a beer summit of sorts to work things out.

In a separate development, it came out that the Department of Justice is conducting an antitrust investigation into Gunnison Energy Corp., which is owned by William Koch, whose Bear Ranch would be expanded by about 1,800 acres of what is now public land in the trade proposed by Salazar.

The company that sought the federal investigation, however, already lost a federal court lawsuit and was tagged with court costs, a Gunnison Energy Corp. spokesman said, calling the complaint meritless.

But wait. There’s more.

One of the participants in the battle, Ed Marston, said he has gone from merely interested in more information about the trade to declaring his outright opposition.

A Koch spokesman, meanwhile, blamed Marston for the entire mess and accused him of manipulating the issue for an ally’s political gain.

The immediate upshot is that during the coming big-game hunting season, Bear Ranch will more zealously protect its property rights than before, Koch spokesman Brad Goldstein said.

“Now I guess we’ll have to call the sheriff if somebody strays onto our property or shoots an elk and it limps onto the ranch,” Goldstein said. “We’ll have to follow the letter of the law rather than be neighborly because of Mr. Marston.”

Marston said he didn’t intend to start anything when he wrote an innocuous letter to the editor about the swap. When he did that, Koch’s people “jumped all over me.”

At the heart of the dispute is H.R. 5059, the Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act of 2010, which would give Bear Ranch a swath of federal land that now separates two tracts of the Bear Ranch tucked behind Paonia Reservoir.

In return, 912 acres that Koch bought for $2.7 million overlooking Blue Mesa Reservoir and the Dillon Pinnacles would become public land, circumventing the possibility they might be developed as large homes even with conservation easements. The National Park Service also would get the home of the discoverer of fossils on what is now known as Dinosaur National Monument. Other lands near Marble and a trail are included in the deal.

Another facet of the legislation by Salazar called for Koch to make the treasury whole if an appraisal showed he would otherwise get the better part of the deal, and for Koch to take the loss if the trade favored the federal government.

Koch and his wife, Bridget, are longtime staunch supporters of Salazar, contributing the maximum to his campaign annually since 2006, for a total of $39,800. Along with Salazar, they support other candidates and politicians.

Salazar also has hunted elk on Bear Ranch, much as he has done elsewhere on private land in Colorado, he said, and much as he has invited people to hunt on his ranch in southern Colorado.

Salazar told The Daily Sentinel last week he is convinced the swap is worth investigating, and he’s the right person to carry the legislation.

“How would it look if Diana DeGette (who represents Denver in the House) ran a piece of legislation like this in my district?” Salazar said.

Though he has visited Koch’s ranch, Salazar said he hadn’t discussed the trade with Koch, only Koch’s managers.

Salazar also said he was unaware of the Justice Department antitrust investigation.

Jacob Thurner of Riviera Drilling and Exploration Co., which sought the antitrust investigation, said he believes the land swap and the way Koch-owned Gunnison Energy manages the Ragged Mountain pipeline are connected.

Riviera depends on the pipeline to move its product and contended in its suit that access to the pipeline was restricted by “terms that are unreasonable, discriminatory, and uneconomic” and aimed at forcing it out of business.

“We’re kind of the last holdout,” Thurner said.

“We won the case” when the complaint was lodged in federal court in Denver, Goldstein said. “I don’t think it’s coincidental that a month later the feds showed up. We don’t think there’s any merit to it, we never did, and we have cooperated fully and will cooperate fully.”

Goldstein said all of the fuss about the land swap has him thinking Marston is trying to pave the way for one of his allies to run for the Delta County Commission, which has taken no position on the land swap.

The Gunnison County Commission, however, supports the swap. Gunnison County, according to Salazar, inspired it.

“I am grateful for Brad’s implication that we need new county commissioners,” Marston said.

“It would be great if we had at least one commissioner in Delta or in Gunnison counties who was interested in protecting our high-elevation, forested, public lands. Right now, we’re batting zero-for-six.”

Koch’s interest in western Colorado runs deeper than the money he has spent on Salazar’s campaigns, Goldstein said, ticking off a list of contributions, including $50,000 to Delta Memorial Hospital, $15,000 to Paonia Elementary School, $20,000 to the Paonia Public Library fund, $6,000 to the Paonia Rotary Club, $1,500 to Paonia soccer club, $4,600 for play equipment in Somerset Park in Somerset and $20,000 to the St. Mary’s Hospital construction fund.

“What has Ed Marston brought to the table?” Goldstein said.

Koch “has been very generous, no doubt about it,” said John Caven of Crawford.

“But the people who supply the services (that Koch funds) are the same ones who work for him.”

The people who live and work in the North Fork Valley haven’t been consulted by Koch or Salazar, Caven said.

Salazar “talked to four people in Gunnison County, but he hasn’t talked to the rest of us,” Caven said.

Caven said he would like to discuss the bill with Salazar on the turf with which they both are familiar.

“Tell (Salazar) to come over here,” Caven said. “We’ll be happy to have a beer with him over a fire,” a kind of Rocky Mountain beer summit.

“I’ll be happy,” Salazar said, “to sit down with anyone.”


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