John Salazar land swap deal drawing national attention -- and heat

An unusual land swap deal on the Western Slope orchestrated by Representative John Salazar, one that would benefit his largest campaign contributor, is starting to draw scrutiny well beyond disgruntled hunters and activists in Gunnison County, who claim the public is getting the short end of the transaction. The Wall Street Journal recently weighed in with its own report on the controversy, looking at William Koch's effort to acquire strips of federal land that now divide his 4500-acre cattle ranch.

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel continues to raise questions (and hackles) about the deal, too, with this article speculating about the motives of opponents of the trade.

Last spring, Salazar introduced legislation that would add 900 acres to the Curecanti National Recreation Area in exchange for 1,800 acres of federal land that Koch, the billionaire scion of a family oil refining empire, is seeking for his ranch. Koch has an interest in natural gas and mining interests in Colorado, and he and other family members have contributed close to $40,000 to Salazar's campaigns. The federal land at issue is under the authority of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, John's brother.

Representative Salazar says the bill was drafted in response to requests by local county commissioners. Critics of the deal, including former High County News publisher Ed Marston, have lamented a lack of public input in the process and pointed to leaked Bureau of Land Management documents that suggest some of the federal land in question, including a key access road for hikers and hunters, shouldn't be on the table.

As the Journal points out, there are certain benefits to the trade, including protecting valued sage grouse habitat from development and eliminating some private holdings inside Dinosaur National Monument. But the notion of turning over a public road to a private interest sticks in the craw of many locals, it seems.

Koch has pledged to pay $250,000 to improve other roads in the area to make up for the one he's taking -- and only $50,000 if the feds still require him to let bikers and hikers, but not motorized vehicles, use the road to get to other forest land in the area.

Salazar has indicated that he doesn't plan to push the bill until next year. Count on the whole deal getting a lot more public discussion in the next few weeks of election season.

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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