John Salazar: Land swap aids big donor

While Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar has been enduring a summer of media broiling over everything from the BP oil spill to federal wild-horse roundups, his brother John has been coolly and quietly toodling toward re-election and a fourth term in Congress.

But now, the Other Salazar is facing some sticky questions, too -- about a proposed federal land swap that would add 900 acres to the Curecanti National Recreation Area while benefiting a rancher who happens to be Salazar's biggest campaign contributor.

Salazar introduced the Central Rockies Land Exchange and National Park System Enhancement Act last spring at the request of Gunnison County leaders. But the bill is generating some discussion on the Western Slope because it helps rancher and Salazar donor William Koch piece together his holdings near Paonia Reservoir, according to this report in Grand Junction's Daily Sentinel.

Under the terms of the legislation, the National Park Service would add to the Curecanti rec area 912 scenic acres owned by Koch and otherwise subject to residential development, as well as land Koch acquired inside Dinosaur National Monument. In return, Koch would receive 1,841 acres of federal land that divide portions of his Bear Ranch.

Son of the founder of a vast oil refining empire, Koch also has an interest in natural gas and mining operations on the Western Slope. He and other family members have contributed close to $40,000 to Salazar's campaigns. Some critics of the land swap, including former High Country News publisher Ed Marston, have questioned whether Koch is keen on acquiring mineral rights on the federal parcels added to his land.

But a Koch spokesman has denied that the family plans any mining or drilling on the ranch. The bill requires Bear Ranch to pay any difference in the appraisal values of the swapped parcels; Koch paid $3 million for the land he's relinquishing in the deal.

Yet the arrangement is still the coffee-house buzz in Delta and Gunnison counties. The momentum for the deal didn't come from the National Park Service of the Bureau of Land Management but elected officials -- and Salazar's own office. Whether it's a good deal for the public as well as a wealthy rancher may still be under debate, but there's no question that nothing lubricates the machinery of government better than slick lucre.

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast