Adversaries now work together to battle land swap
The Ragged Mountain rumble over the proposed expansion of Bear Ranch in Gunnison County has joined two Paonia residents better recognized as opponents than allies.
Ed Marston, the former publisher of The High Country News once said of Paonia real estate developer Tom Chapman, “The only way to deal with people like this is a scorched-earth policy.”
Chapman and Marston now are working on the same side, trying to prevent a swap sought by one of America’s richest men, a congressman and an array of local government and organization officials.
The twin specter of Marston and Chapman working against the swap is “a weird, unholy alliance,” said Brad Goldstein of Oxbow Group, which is owned by William Koch, the man seeking the land swap.
Chapman, in a statement to The Daily Sentinel, described his role in more prosaic terms, saying he represents a neighbor of Bear Ranch, Jim Sims, a longtime friend and client.
“If the land exchange were to go through as written, Mr. Sims will be the big loser, and Mr. Koch will be the big winner,” Chapman wrote.
That won’t happen if Marston’s analysis of a 1999 court decision about the road into the ranch is correct. By his reading, Marston said, the steep path that leads up to the Bear Ranch is a public highway under rules established in homesteading days.
Goldstein said the court ruling is meaningless and questioned Marston’s motives in the fight.
Koch’s Bear Ranch is the focal point of the land swap that is being carried in Congress by U.S. Rep. John Salazar, D-Colo., as H.R. 5059, the Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park Service Enhancement Act of 2010.
Salazar told The Daily Sentinel last month he would reintroduce the legislation next year and call for field hearings in western Colorado.
Koch is among Salazar’s most reliable supporters, having contributed $39,800 to his campaigns, and Koch has hosted Salazar on elk-hunting trips on the ranch.
The deal is this: Bear Ranch would acquire some 1,800 acres of federal land that separates its upper and lower ranges. The lands actually were two separate ranches until Koch purchased them in recent years.
In exchange for the Bureau of Land Management land, much of which is a rough, steep arroyo studded with blue spruce, sagebrush and rock that is tucked behind Paonia Reservoir and up against Ragged Mountain, Koch will provide the federal government with land along Blue Mesa Reservoir and turn over land to which he has a claim at Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. In all, Koch has so far pumped at least $3 million into acquiring lands that he can swap for the rugged land that splits the Bear Ranch in two.
Koch has tried to sweeten the pot even more, Goldstein said, but he has been frustrated by demands that he pay far more for additional lands than they’re worth.
The fact that he’s a billionaire — Koch was listed as the 234th richest man in America by Forbes.com in 2009 — is no excuse to demand more from Koch than lands are worth, Goldstein said.
Koch offered to buy land in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park on which Chapman wants to build a 25,000-square-foot luxury residence on an area known as Signal Hill.
Chapman has pried millions of dollars from the federal government over recent years by constructing or threatening to construct residences on inholdings, or private lands inside national parks or forests, when the federal government rejects his selling price.
It was his handling of such negotiations that first drew Marston’s ire and prompted the “scorched-earth” comment.
Koch made an offer for the Signal Hill property, but Chapman’s price was too high, Goldstein said.
Chapman said his reaction to the Signal Hill offer “would be the same if (Koch) was a man of average wealth, or no wealth.”
Koch offered $2.5 million for the parcel, a 76-acre inholding in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, subject to an appraisal commissioned by Koch. The appraisal came in at $1.5 million, Chapman said.
“They declined to pay the higher asking price. We declined to accept the lower price. We shook hands on an honest difference of opinion, and went our respective ways,” Chapman wrote. “Nothing more was said, and we had no problem with their decision.”
He later sold the parcel for $2.1 million, Chapman said.
Even without the Signal Hill property, the Koch proposal is a good one, Goldstein said.
In battling it, Marston is “aligning himself with a strong-arm guy, a guy who makes his living strong-arming the federal government,” Goldstein said.
The rugged, hardscrabble land at issue in between the two ranchlands is on the Bureau of Land Management’s disposal list.
County Road 2, graveled and lined with guardrails by Bear Ranch, climbs the steep hillside at a steady uphill angle toward the Bear Ranch gate. It passes by two picnic tables, but they hardly amount to an attraction, ranch manager Rob Gill said.
“You have to want to come here,” Gill said. “You don’t just stumble on it.”
Opponents of the swap say the land is valuable hunting area, and Bear Ranch benefits when hunters on the public land run game uphill.
More like the other way around, Gill said. Hunters who aren’t eager to trudge up and down the draws and through the sage can wait for Bear Ranch to flush game downhill for easy pickings on the public lands, Gill said.
By its difficult nature, the land is hardly managed by the BLM, and Bear Ranch could and would do better if given the opportunity to manage it as its own, Gill said.
The real issue, however, might be the court ruling, Marston said.
In a ruling upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals, District Judge Steven Patrick held that the road is a public road pursuant to Revised Statute 2477, which long has been considered a bane by environmental groups eager to halt motorized travel in the backcountry.
“Maybe it’s not such a bad law after all,” Marston said.
Goldstein said he was unaware of the decision, “but so what? The road goes nowhere. We maintain it as a courtesy. We don’t have to.”
For the opposition, the driving factor is “greed,” Goldstein said. “It’s what is running through all of this.”
With the discovery of the lawsuit — which he maintains could allow Bear Ranch’s gate, but prevent the ranch from locking it — Marston said his role as a “citizen investigator” is over, and now all the issues are on the table to be worked out by the participants, including his newfound ally, Chapman, Marston said.
“I was amazed to find that he and I are on the same side after 30 years,” Marston said. “I’m sure will we’ll go back to feuding when this is over.”