Salazar bill would help generous contributor

A western Colorado land swap sought by U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., would eliminate what National Park Service officials termed a development threat to the Curecanti National Recreation Area. Salazar’s biggest individual campaign contributor, meanwhile, would get land that would allow him to complete assembly of his ranch in Gunnison County.

A third element of the exchange would put into the National Park system the home of the man who first discovered dinosaur bones in what is now known as Dinosaur National Monument in Utah.

Salazar this spring introduced H.R. 5059, the Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act of 2010.

At the heart of the measure is a land swap that would enlarge by 1,841 acres the Bear Ranch owned by William Koch and allow him to knit together disparate parts of his ranch tucked between Ragged Mountain and Paonia Reservoir.

Koch and his family members have contributed $39,800 to Salazar’s federal campaigns, making them his biggest individual contributor, according to Federal Elections Commission documents and the website opensecrets.org.

The Curecanti National Recreation Area would get 912 acres on Sapinero Mesa south of Blue Mesa Reservoir that “is threatened by residential subdivision if not included” within the recreation area, according to the National Park Service.

The land exchange has drawn attention not so much for what is known about it, but what is not.

Ed Marston, former publisher of the High Country News and president of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce, said he knows enough about the proposal to have questions, but he isn’t necessarily opposed to it.

“I am opposed to the secrecy,” Marston said.

Rather than being the result of requests by residents, the bill that was introduced last spring by Salazar came as a surprise to residents of nearby Delta County, Marston said.

Marston said he also is troubled by a Bureau of Land Management document that was leaked to him and suggested three BLM parcels were not identified previously as being appropriate for transfer to private ownership. The document also questioned whether Koch would gain access to coal and natural gas.

Koch’s interests include Gunnison Energy Corp., a natural gas company, and Oxbow Resources, which operates mines in Gunnison County.

Koch, however, has no interest in mining on his ranch land, Koch spokesman Brad Goldstein said.

“The conspiracy theorists’ idea that he wants to mine there is ludicrous,” Goldstein said.

Koch grew up on ranches in Montana and Wyoming and has gone to great expense to develop Bear Ranch as a cattle ranch, Goldstein said.

Bringing the 1,800 acres into the ranch proper will allow Koch to better manage his ranch, especially during elk season “when he does have a problem with people trespassing,” Goldstein said. “The last thing you want is a hunter shooting across your property.”

As for the exchange, “We think it’s a good deal for the public,” Goldstein said. “We’re not trying to hide the ball or cheat anybody.”

Salazar introduced the measure at the request of the Gunnison County Commission, according to Salazar’s office in Washington, D.C.

The commission wrote on April 6 to Salazar supporting the federal government’s acquisition of the Sapinero Mesa property, which Goldstein said was purchased by Bear Ranch for $2.7 million. Koch also spent $300,000 to acquire the inholding at Dinosaur National Park.

The Sapinero Mesa is part of 25,000 acres the National Park Service would like to acquire, said Dave Roberts, management assistant for the recreation area and Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

Perhaps the land coveted most by the agency is the land on Sapinero Mesa that sits opposite the Dillin Pinnacles and offers views up Soap Creek and toward the West Elk Mountains.

“It’s probably the most scenic spot on Blue Mesa Reservoir,” Roberts said.

As such, it could someday be considered as a potential location for a visitor center, Roberts said.

“This is not something the Park Service is driving,” Roberts said, “but we’d like to see it happen.”

Salazar’s bill, which was introduced on the Senate side by Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., provides that Bear Ranch will pay the difference to the federal government if the appraised value of the lands it acquires exceed the value of the lands it gives up. If the lands the ranch obtains are worth less than it gives to the federal government, the surplus shall be considered a donation to the government, according to the bill.

No hearings have been scheduled on the measure in either house of Congress.


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