Billionaire Ohio retailer asks BLM to approve deal
Undoubtedly, billionaire Ohioan Leslie Wexner has mastered the art of the sale.
Starting his Limited Brands company with one Columbus store in 1963 that yielded $160,000 in revenues its first year, he grew it to what Limited Brands calls a “$10 billion segment leader” focusing on lingerie, beauty and personal care products and employing 90,000 people.
Lingerie, as in that sold by Victoria’s Secret and its famously cover-girl-caliber, scantily clad models. Beauty and personal care products, as in those carried by Bath & Body Works.
But for all Wexner’s success, he has yet to have much luck winning over one tough customer in another sales effort. For several years, Wexner has been seeking Pitkin County’s backing for a proposed land swap under which he would acquire more than 1,200 acres of U.S. Bureau of Land Management property in the area of his 4,700-acre Two Shoes Ranch. The ranch is at the base of majestic Mount Sopris, which has twin peaks nearly 13,000 feet high that tower over nearby Carbondale. The bulk of acreage Wexner is after divides his ranch holdings in two.
Thanks to what would be gained in return, the concept has won wide support, including from Garfield and Eagle counties, local land trust and conservation groups, Colorado Parks and Wildlife and others. But Pitkin County, home to the land the Wexners would acquire, has refused to support it, in part because of the loss of federal acreage in the county that would result.
That led Leslie Wexner and his wife Abigail to conclude they would not succeed in an effort to get the trade accomplished through political means, by an act of Congress. So they withdrew their legislative proposal, and now they’re taking a different route, asking the BLM to approve it through an administrative process. But the proposal is facing many of the same questions that came up the last time around, even as many supporters continue to laud what they consider its many benefits.
Some in Pitkin County are rankled by the idea of billionaires pushing to acquire federal land through exchanges to enlarge their massive mountain estates. Wexner’s proposal has drawn comparisons to one sought by billionaire William Koch for his Bear Ranch, near Paonia Reservoir.
“I look at this. I look at Bear Ranch. I just get paroxysms over these things,” said Anne Rickenbaugh of Aspen, who sits on Pitkin County’s Open Space & Trails Board.
“We’re paying these guys to take our public lands from us. ... The land management agencies grossly undervalue these properties,” she said.
“They’re giving it away,” Franz Froelicher, who lives in the Crystal River Valley near Mount Sopris, said of the federal government’s approach to such exchanges.
THE CASE FOR TRADE
But while Wexner would gain far more land than he would give, advocates of the swap say that in fact the public would come out well ahead on the Wexner deal.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” said Martha Cochran, director of the Aspen Valley Land Trust, which on this issue finds itself at odds with a county it more typically cooperates with on conservation matters.
She called the deal a “huge win” for land conservation and wildlife, with a net of about three square miles of land being protected from development.
The 1,268 acres the BLM would transfer to Wexner would be protected by a conservation easement. So would three parcels totaling 195 acres on Horse Mountain southwest of Eagle, which would be acquired from the BLM by the adjacent Lady Belle Ranch.
In return, the BLM would get the 557-acre Sutey Ranch north of Carbondale in Garfield County, and 117 acres along Prince Creek Road in Pitkin County at the base of Mount Sopris.
Also, the Wexners would give the BLM $100,000 to develop a management plan for Sutey Ranch, and $1 million for its long-term management.
Land swap supporters see the Sutey Ranch as a prize acquisition. It was once run by bachelor brothers Tony and John Sutey, after originally being owned by their grandfather, and it faced the possibility of sale to developers after their deaths. But Wexner bought it with the hope of being able to use it in a land swap - either saving it from development, or acquiring it to hold it hostage for their deal, depending on who is talking.
A small, rundown farmhouse sits on the property, along with several outbuildings. The ranch is considered important winter habitat for deer and elk and has three irrigated pastures; its considerable water rights would be included in the deal.
Besides its value for wildlife, it is adjacent to the BLM’s Red Hill Special Recreation Area, which extends toward Carbondale and is heavily used by mountain bikers and hikers.
Davis Farrar, president of the Red Hill Council nonprofit group, is thrilled at the prospect that the ranch might be spared from development. Seeing it carved up into 35-acre parcels instead “would probably be the worst thing here,” he said during a recent tour of the property.
He and other recreationists hope to see at least some limited recreational access to the property as well. Perry Will, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Glenwood Springs, said he thinks that would be fine as long as it was closed off in the winter to protect deer and elk.
Protecting that ranch while placing a conservation easement on the Mount Sopris land the Wexners would acquire would be “a win-win for wildlife, especially in that (Roaring Fork) valley, where the development pressures are so high,” Will said. “... The winter range is critical for deer and elk.”
The proposed monetary contribution is “incredible,” addressing the problem that otherwise can come with agencies acquiring property but lacking the money to manage them, Will said.
State wildlife officials already have been working with the Wexners, who have provided access to their ranch for hunting by youth and by wounded veterans.
“The Wexners have been very good to deal with from our perspective, wanting to do what’s right,” Will said.
OTHER PARCELS INVOLVED
The Wexners acquired the Prince Creek property with the goal of throwing it into the land swap to sweeten the deal. Although it’s private land, it is extensively used by mountain bikers to access nearby BLM land on an area known as The Crown. The land swap would preserve that access in the future and could allow the BLM to address a shortage of parking in the area now.
“That’s awesome. It’s nice to know that it’s designated for recreation” under the proposal, said Aspen resident Carole Sharp, as she readied for a ride in the Crown area.
She wasn’t too familiar with the swap proposal, but didn’t share the concerns of some others in Pitkin County, and was happy to hear of the potential to benefit wildlife she fears are being pushed out by development.
“Animals need to have more space,” she said.
The Eagle County property the BLM would give up in the swap has no legal public access. Eagle County supports the Wexner proposal because of the conservation easement that would prevent possible development of that land. The land is on Horse Mountain and is highly visible from the Eagle area.
Under the land swap, the Lady Belle Ranch would pay the Wexners for the value of the land it would acquire from the BLM. Andy Wiessner, a federal land swap consultant working with the Wexners, said the Eagle County property was thrown into the deal to better equalize the value of the overall swap. But even at that, he said a preliminary appraisal conducted for the Wexners suggests the value of the deal to the BLM is about $7 million, when the monetary contribution is included, while what the Wexners would be acquiring is probably worth $4 million or less.
“The values are pretty far skewed in favor of the BLM on this,” said Aspen attorney Gideon Kaufman, who is representing the Wexners, whom he has known for 30 years and says are family-oriented, civic-minded people “of great integrity.”
The BLM has said it expects the land appraisals will show the deal favors the public, even without the $1.1 million donation. And despite how much more acreage the Wexners would gain than they would give up, the agency notes that it evaluates land swaps based on their value, rather than on an acre-for-acre basis.
TWO VIEWS OF VALUE
Land swap proponents and the BLM describe the Mount Sopris land the BLM would give up as being remote, rugged, non-irrigated, with limited public access and little public use.
“Nobody goes there,” Cochran said. I know people who have hunted there and hiked there and they all admit they trespassed to get there.”
Dale Will, Pitkin County’s open space and trails director, says public access isn’t that difficult, involving an uphill hike of little more than an hour. And he said there are many peaks and a lot of public acreage in Colorado that are cherished by the public despite requiring difficult hikes to visit.
“The idea that because it’s a difficult hike we ought to get rid of it to me is shocking,” he said.
The Mount Sopris acreage wasn’t on the BLM’s list of lands it had been considering for disposal through sale or trade. But agency spokesman David Boyd said the agency still can evaluate such actions on a case-by-case basis.
Swap critics like Will contend that what’s being characterized as relatively low-value land instead would add tremendous value to the Wexners’ ranch.
Kaufman said the Wexners’ goal in acquiring it was to prevent possible oil and gas development there, after leasing started occurring in the Thompson Divide area several miles to the west. They would acquire the federal oil and gas rights for the land under the deal and the conservation easement would prevent drilling.
But Will believes there needs to be more consideration of what the BLM property would contribute toward consolidating a ranch property the Wexners already have spent $84 million piecing together through a number of purchases.
“How much value does it add to the $84 million to privatize that two square miles?” he said.
Pitkin County already has some of the most expensive land in the country. If the swap occurs, the Wexners “will become the largest landowners in Pitkin County, in one of the most scenic places in Pitkin County. There’s no telling what this thing will be worth once this exchange is done,” Will said.
He said large, trophy ranches in the Rockies are extraordinarily valuable, with international market interest.
“We are concerned that the BLM just doesn’t understand the phenomenon of trophy ranches and what sort of value is going to be realized on the private side of this exchange proposal,” he said.
Wiessner dismisses such concerns, saying the federal government is hardly inexperienced in conducting land trades.
“One might think they know what they’re doing,” he said.
COUNTING FEDERAL ACRES LOST
Pitkin County has come under considerable criticism over its concern that while other counties would gain federal land in the deal, it would see a significant loss. Critics say the county has gained many more square miles of federal land than it has lost from other swaps in recent decades. Eagle County lost federal land in one of those deals, but in a recent letter supporting the Wexner deal, its commissioners said that where exchanges occur should matter less than whether they are for the greater public good.
While Garfield gains and Pitkin loses federal acreage, the deal still benefits the overall Roaring Fork Valley, advocates say.
Added Wexner attorney Kaufman, “I don’t think the deer and elk care if it’s Pitkin County or Eagle County or Garfield County, as long as the property’s protected.”
Will said if other counties had objected to past deals where they lost federal land and Pitkin gained it, Pitkin would have opposed those deals. He said what he objects to is the idea of giving up valuable federal land to acquire other land.
SPENDING DOWN THE ACCOUNT?
The concern in Pitkin County is that the Wexner swap could set a precedent for other similar trophy ranch transactions in a place whose identity is tied to its federal lands, Will said.
“The fear is that if the federal government started exchanging those lands, they could generate a lot of buying power for lands elsewhere, but it would essentially be treating the land we have here as a bank account and spending it,” he said.
The proposed swap’s benefits for mountain bikers don’t impress Aspen resident Cindy Burke, interviewed before riding BLM land on The Crown.
“I just don’t think that private people should be able to take public lands just because they have money,” she said. ... “I don’t think public land should be given away or sold.”
The BLM’s Boyd said it stands to reason that richer people are usually the parties involved in federal land exchanges.
“To be able to own that kind of acreage, you’re probably wealthy,” he said.
Kaufman said he’s not familiar with Koch’s Bear Ranch proposal, but he hopes the Wexner one is considered based on its own merits and its broad support aside from Pitkin County.
The BLM plans to release an environmental assessment on the proposal later this year and make a final decision next year.
Boyd said the fact that the Wexners would benefit from the exchange would be fine as long as what the BLM gets is worth what it gives up and there’s a net public gain.
“A win-win is OK,” he said.