Bear Ranch land swap mostly supported at Delta meeting

Billionaire William Koch on Monday laid groundwork to ask that Congress approve a multistate, multiagency land swap that would consolidate his ranch in western Colorado.

Opponents to the expansion of Bear Ranch, which is tucked behind Paonia Reservoir and beneath Ragged Mountain, questioned whether the public actually would benefit from the trade.

More than 80 people, most of them supporters of the swap, filled a meeting room in the Delta County Courthouse to hear about the trade, which would affect no land in that county. The Delta County Commission, however, is expected to eventually take a position on the trade. All three members of the commission have toured the land proposed for the swap.

Bear Ranch manager Rob Gill touted the benefits of the swap, saying the ranch would gain 1,860 acres to connect its two main sections, which are separated by an old stock drive parcel that dates to the homesteading era.

Consolidating the ranch will advance plans for the ranch to produce meat under the 7X Cattle Co. brand, which is to be introduced in six to 14 months, Gill said.

Ed Marston, a Paonia resident and former publisher of the High Country News, who last year said he hoped to find something in the swap to support, said he could not, even though Koch is offering to increase access to the Ragged Mountain wilderness area, as well as to popular mountain-bicycling areas on Jumbo Mountain overlooking Paonia, to his original proposal.

Congress, Marston said, should not have to “micromanage” the Gunnison National Forest to the extent that it will be asked to approve the swap.

If people were aware of the interest in Congress in such details, “then maybe its 9 percent approval rating would rise,” Marston said.

Congress, however, came under less fire than did mountain bicyclists, who were criticized on all sides.

The Gunnison County Trails Committee seems to be a prime advocate of the swap, Marston said, noting that cyclists stand to receive a forest trail in the deal.

Mountain bikers “do not like to share,” Marston said.

That prompted rancher Gary Volk, a neighbor of Bear Ranch, to worry aloud that mountain bikers might not mix well with livestock.

“If a biker can’t look at a four-wheeler now and then, they definitely will not look at a cow,” Volk said.

Volk, however, said he didn’t oppose the swap.

Penny Heuscher, a hiker, did.

The swap would close off County Road 2, which leads into the ranch from Paonia Reservoir, and the closure would bar the public from that spectacular aspect of Ragged Mountain, Heuscher said.

“We can’t give up that access,” she said.

Frank Mastrullo of Paonia said the transfer would pose fewer problems and would go a long way to resolving trespassing and hunter-safety issues on the strip of public land separating the two parts of Bear Ranch.

He once saw what was left of a poached elk there during a hunt on public portions of the land, which was steep and hemmed in by private land.

“I didn’t feel safe there because it was so narrow,” Mastrullo said.

Koch’s first swap offer included lands sought by the National Park Service in Utah for Dinosaur National Monument and on Sapinero Mesa overlooking Blue Mesa Reservoir. Those lands remain in the offer.

A second public discussion on the swap is to be in Paonia on Dec. 6.


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