December 12, 2019
San Juan National Forest
Attn: Becca Smith
P.O. Box 310
Pagosa Springs, CO 81147
Dear Ms. Becca Smith,
Thank you for the opportunity to provide comments for the Scoping Phase of the proposed Valle Seco 2019 Land Exchange. We appreciate your responsiveness to our questions during the scoping period. We understand that public comments received in this scoping phase will inform, and be addressed in, the next phase of your NEPA analysis of the proposal, most likely an Environmental Assessment (EA).
Colorado Wild Public Lands is a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect the integrity, size and quality of public lands in Colorado, including a focus on the Federal Land Exchange process. We appreciate your consideration of the following comments:
PUBLIC ACCESS, RECREATION AND VALUES
The current proposal does not provide any detail about the public access to and use of Parcels 1-11. As such, it is difficult to assess whether there are valuable public attributes being traded away. Based on the maps, the proposal favors upland habitat and big game hunting opportunities, possibly at the expense of riparian habitat and angling opportunities; there should be more information about such trades.
It appears that Parcel 3 may provide the only public access from the highway to the forest on the south side of the highway between Pagosa Springs and Wolf Creek Pass. Perhaps it is not in the public interest to convey this parcel out of the public estate. This exchange, through elimination of this last access, should not set the stage for a future exchange in which the beneficiary proponent seeks to acquire even more of the forest.
Parcel 7 appears to be key to public access on FS Road 660; would conveyance be subject to a public road easement? Parcels 5 and 9 seem to present a similar question. The Forest Service should reserve the public's right of access through these roads.
There does appear to be enthusiasm for the public acquisition of the keystone Parcel A, but the proposal does not address whether the Agency has attempted to acquire this parcel through other means such as a Land and Water Conservation Fund purchase. The proponents' 2014 purchase price of the parcel seems inconsistent with economically viable development of the property suggesting that they made the purchase with the intent of eliminating public purchase as a practical alternative; as such, we urge the agency to drive a hard bargain in this exchange and not just defer to the wishes of the proponents.
The removal of acreages from designated Roadless Areas and Suitable Wild and Scenic River Corridors are an area of concern. We must assume that the lands subject to this level of restriction are home to some extraordinary attributes, yet the proposal provides no detail about such attributes for Parcels 1 (which is subject to both types of restrictive designation), 2 and 10. Overall, we anticipate that further analysis and the EA will address the environmental, social and cultural attributes of all parcels included in the exchange, including but not limited to wetlands, riparian, and wildlife habitat as well as recreation opportunities, for example fishing and hunting.
The EA should include detailed analysis of alternatives to "the Proposed Action" and "No Action". It should demonstrate that the Forest Service has attempted to acquire the keystone parcel A through means other than a land exchange and the alternatives should earnestly consider the agency's discretion under NFMA to reserve all existing public rights to access, fish, and hunt the exchange parcels and to require appropriate restrictions such as conservation easements on future uses of sensitive lands. The analysis should describe existing conditions accurately and provide detailed, quantitative evidence that the exchange enhances the public interest and demonstrate efforts to balance opportunities for all user groups without sacrificing one group's needs over another's.
MITIGATION AND MANAGEMENT
There is a potentially net loss of publicly managed riparian habitat in the proposal; Parcels 3, 7 and 10 all contain stretches of river. The stretch through Parcel 10 is the only one that is offset by the exchange and the stretch that would be conveyed back to the public (Parcel B) appears to have less river frontage than the currently public parcel 10. The environmental document should provide detail about the quality of the habitat and whether there is angling use and access to these riparian areas. Because there is a net public loss of riparian habitat, the riparian parcels should be conveyed subject to conservation easements or other deed restriction to prevent degradation of those areas, especially on Parcel 10, as it is part of a Suitable Wild and Scenic River Corridor; draft documents of these restrictions should be included in the draft EA.
Generally, the EA should include some level of detail regarding future management planning. The public deserves to know specifics about what they are receiving in return for conveying public lands to private entities, and how these new public amenities will impact the local environments and economies. For example, because the stated purpose of acquiring Parcel A is to maintain wildlife habitat and connectivity, any environmental analysis should contain details about future inter-agency management plans that demonstrate protections for habitat and connectivity.
If there are any contractual arrangements among the beneficiaries regarding the disposition of the lands proposed in the exchange, the details of these arrangements should be included in an EA. For example, if the exchange conveys lands to one proponent with the understanding that that beneficiary has an arrangement to convey some of those lands to another beneficiary, any details or contracts of that arrangement should be public. Additionally, the EA should demonstrate what each beneficiary of the exchange has brought to the balance of the exchange.
APPRAISALS AND VALUATION
The draft EA should include an appendix of all current (as of the time of the draft's release) appraisals so as to allow public scrutiny and comment; ideally, they should have been available as part of the public information posted on the website for the public to consider in scoping. If there are updated appraisals at the time of the release of the draft and/or final EA and ROD, the new documents should be included as appendices as well.
In conducting future appraisals for this exchange, the USFS should ensure the appraisals utilize multiple techniques to fully consider the value of the lands included in the exchange, including but not limited to the assemblage value of the USFS lands to the exchange proponents. As documented in "Trophy Property Valuation; A Ranch Case Study, (2003) by Bill Mundy", Trophy Ranch appraisals require specialized expertise and review. They should quantifiably document values for the proposed changes in use and costs and benefits to all parties in the exchange, be they public or private.
Appraisals should also reflect the full range of public property rights and values the proposed action conveys to the proponents. Due their proximity, Parcel B and Parcel 10 appraisals should demonstrate the similar valuation. Appraisals should include an analysis of public values associated with the public properties in the exchange, including access and recreational opportunities, cultural and historical attributes, habitat and species diversity, and wildlife connectivity.
The EA should demonstrate that the agency has researched and considered all known potential for cumulative impacts. Many environmental analyses of land exchanges restrict this analysis to transactional data – how many acres have changed ownership in the area. But they do not look at the cumulative gains and losses of natural attributes such as riparian acreage, water rights or acreage providing habitat for sensitive species; nor do they consider the net gain or loss of access and recreational opportunities. For example, the designated sensitive species Harrington Penstemon, has been an issue in several land exchanges recently and none of the environmental documents have considered the quantity of publicly managed habitat conveyed out of public management. Such consideration is one of the cornerstone intents of NEPA.
ROADLESS AREA CONSERVATION RULE
Forest Service 36 CFR Part 294 RIN 0596–AB77 states that the Roadless Area Conservation Rule is intended to prevent fragmentation of lands and provide protection for those lands.
Per this proposal, the Forest Service proposes to modify the South San Juan Adjacent Roadless Area and Turkey Creek Roadless Area boundaries, located in the San Juan National Forest, to remove approximately 176 acres of Federal Land. Removing lands from the Colorado Roadless Area designation would increase fragmentation and remove protection. Please address this concern in the EA including discussion as to why the lands in the exchange were included in those areas. Please also clarify the required Forest Service process for this action.
The San Juan National Forest Plan, Appendix 3 - Roadless Area Inventory states that:
• The Turkey Creek Roadless Area has good turkey habitat.
• The South San Juan Adjacent Roadless area is high in cultural and natural resources including many types of wildlife, and has wilderness characteristics.
• Both Roadless Areas have high oil and gas potential.
Please address these characteristics relative to the designated Roadless Area parcels in the exchange. Oil and gas exploration or extraction should NOT be allowed on the parcels if transferred to private ownership.
WILD AND SCENIC RIVERS
The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act protects more than 12,700 miles of rivers and streams in the U.S. and the Forest Service is involved in managing nearly 5,000 of those wild and scenic rivers miles. Designation as a wild and scenic river is our nation's strongest form of protection for free-flowing rivers and streams. They have remarkable scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic or other similar values that led Congress to add these waterways to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.
The EA should address and compare the values of the two parcels designated Suitable Wild and Scenic River Corridors, including accessible stream frontage, fishing, scenic, wetlands, riparian and wildlife values, and how the acquisition of Parcel B serves the public interest and not that of the proponent. We are concerned that the public will be losing riparian acreage and river frontage in that corridor.
Because there are lands subject to unique designations and management strategies involved in this exchange, we feel that the agency should consider conducting an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for this proposal. If the agency chooses to forgo the rigors of an EIS, an EA should include additional information on cumulative effects and be subject to a 30-day (or longer) draft comment opportunity prior to issuance of a ROD; the agency should not issue the two documents together.
The proposal does not seem to be widely publicized. The press release was not in all the local papers. It would have been helpful and informative to have held an open house, during which people could look at better maps, ask questions of the agencies involved in the exchange, and perhaps learn more about the proponents and their plans for the public parcels they would acquire through the exchange. Since there was no email address provided in any of the notice documents or newspaper articles, it is unclear that comments may be submitted by email; commenting is made less accessible by this omission.
The timing of the notice and beginning of the comment period is not conducive to public engagement. Opening a 30-day comment period on the front end of thanksgiving serves to minimize opportunity for people to take the time to learn about the proposal and prepare comments. If the agency is really interested in educating the public about the proposal and soliciting feedback, the comment period should be noticed so as to close on the thanksgiving week or be delayed until January, after the holidays. The agency should post the scoping comments on their website as soon as they can, along with any other relevant documents, such as biological and cultural assessments, mineral evaluations, and appraisals. Any document referred to or cited in future environmental analyses should be made available at the opening of the next comment period, so the public may use them in considering and commenting on the proposal.
Thank you for your consideration of our comments and your responsiveness to questions during the scoping period. We look forward to the opportunity to review a thorough environmental evaluation under NEPA, including the responses to our concerns.
Stefanie Davis, Board Member
On behalf of The Colorado Wild Public Lands Board of Directors