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Forest Service seeks public comment on proposed land exchange

Public comments are now being accepted on a land-exchange proposal in Archuleta County.

Thomas Smith has proposed to convey to the U.S. Forest Service two parcels of private property within the boundaries of the San Juan National Forest. The private parcels, Laughlin Park and Spiler Canyon, total 222.5 acres. In exchange, Mr. Smith would acquire a 339-acre parcel of National Forest surrounded by private property at Oak Brush Hill.

The San Juan National Forest originally signed an Agreement to Initiate this proposal in 2004, but work on the project was suspended in 2005. The Forest Service is now reinitiating the environmental review process for the proposal. This will include seeking public comments and offering avenues for the public to learn more about the proposal. Public comments submitted from the earlier effort will not be analyzed, and those who commented before and still want their comments considered, must submit comments again.

A public open house will be held Wednesday, Dec. 1, from 4-7 p.m. at the Ross Aragon Community Center, 451 Hot Springs Blvd., to allow interested members of the public to view maps of the parcels and ask questions of Forest Service staff and of Western Land Group, the project proponent representative. Field trips will be offered to the parcels, weather permitting, with signup sheets available at the open house.

The proposed federal exchange parcel is adjacent to the Forest Service Job Corps site, which is not part of the proposal. Smith has submitted to the Forest Service a conceptual development plan for the Oak Brush Hill parcel, which calls for 35-acre home sites and construction of an access road from the Piedra Road. The Oak Brush Hill parcel also adjoins Mr. Smith’s Dutton Creek Ranch, which Smith has also submitted a preliminary development plan for property to Archuleta County for preliminary review.

The private parcels offered to the Forest Service in the exchange proposal, Laughlin Park and Spiler Canyon, are currently owned by Smith. Both are surrounded by the San Juan National Forest in undeveloped portions of Archuleta County. Public acquisition of these parcels would result in the protection of important wildlife habitat, wetlands, improved management efficiencies, and other desirable natural features.

Exchanges are completed on an equal-value basis, as determined by appraisals reviewed and approved by the Forest Service. If the values are not equal, the federal property can be reduced in acreage, and/or a cash equalization payment of up to 25 percent of the value of the Federal lands may be made.

Public comments on the scope of issues to be studied in an environmental analysis of the proposal will be accepted until Wednesday, Dec. 22. Written comments should be addressed to: Forest Supervisor, San Juan National Forest, c/o Cindy Hockelberg, P.O. Box 439, Bayfield CO 81122.

Electronic comments may also be submitted via e-mail to: sbrinton@fs.fed.us.

For more information, call Cindy Hockelberg at (970) 884-1418 or via e-mail at: chockelberg@fs.fed.us.

Kevin Khung, Pagosa District Ranger/Field Office manage issued the following comments concerning the proposed exchange.

“The proposed Laughlin Park Land Exchange offers the community and public land managers important choices in how to manage our public lands. Among our choices are the conservation of back-county lands that have not been impacted by human development and the retention of more urban public lands that have been influenced by human development. This proposal also presents opportunities to explore the mission of the Forest Service in today’s world.

“These are just some of the issues we will explore together in an environmental assessment process that is beginning for this proposed land exchange. Our goal will be to determine what is in the best overall public interest in terms of land acquired versus land traded.

“Mr. Thomas Smith has proposed to convey to the U.S. Forest Service two parcels of private lands surrounded by the San Juan National Forest. The private lands, Laughlin Park and Spiller Canyon, total 222.5 acres. In exchange, Mr. Smith would acquire an isolated tract of National Forest lands surrounded by private lands, locally known as Oak Brush Hill. Approximately 339 acres of these public lands are being considered in this proposed land exchange.

“Exchanges with the Forest Service are conducted on a value to value basis, not an acre for acre basis. The appraisal process will consider all potential and possible uses for each parcel, taking into consideration the legal, physically possible, and financially feasible uses for each. If the appraisal values do not match, the land exchange must be altered or denied.

“The San Juan National Forest originally signed an Agreement to Initiate this proposal in 2004, but work on this project was suspended in 2005. We are now reinitiating the environmental assessment process for the proposal and seeking public comments. Because of the time that has passed, comments submitted from the earlier effort will not be analyzed; anyone who commented before and still wants their comments considered must submit comments again.

“Oak Brush Hill adjoins Mr. Smith’s Dutton Creek Ranch. Mr. Smith has submitted to us a conceptual development plan for the Oak Brush Hill property, which calls for nine 35-acre home sites and construction of an access road from the Piedra Road. Mr. Smith has also submitted a preliminary development plan for his adjacent Dutton Creek Property to Archuleta County for preliminary review. Mr. Smith currently has access to the Dutton Creek Ranch from Cloman Boulevard.

“Although Mr. Smith’s land-exchange proposal would be consistent with adjoining private property use, some members of the public are concerned that it would facilitate additional development. In addition, wildlife disturbance and the loss of recreation opportunities have been identified as issues. Unfortunately, general public access to Oak Brush Hill is limited because it is mostly surrounded by private property. The surrounding existing residential development has also limited its value as wildlife habitat.

“Other members of the public have expressed support for the proposed exchange because it would allow for acquisition of private inholdings deep within the National Forest, which otherwise may be developed. The private parcels the public stands to acquire in this proposed land exchange, Laughlin Park and Spiler Canyon, are completely surrounded by public lands and already blend with the surrounding backcountry. Acquisition of these parcels would help keep intact their overall ecological integrity, as well as that of the surrounding public lands. Public acquisition of these parcels would also result in the protection of important wildlife habitat and corridors, and wetlands.

“Under different ownership and in the past, Laughlin Park has been proposed for residential development. Residential development would increase the number of people and homes in the wildland urban interface, bringing heightened concerns of wildfire danger. Development of this parcel would also require that the Forest Service give consideration to snow removal, utility corridors, and water development across existing public lands. The infrastructure associated with development would negatively impact existing and important wildlife corridors and habitat, as well as wetlands.

“Certainly it would be optimum to purchase the private inholdings outright without considering a land exchange, but our ability to acquire land is very limited. In 1988, the Forest Service attempted to acquire Laughlin Park, but the asking price was greater than the appraised value. Currently, no option exists for purchasing these private inholdings and both have high dollar development potential.

“Public comments on the scope of issues to be studied in an environmental assessment of the proposal will be accepted until Wednesday, Dec. 22, 2010. Please include in your comments specific items you feel should be addressed. If you can, please include ways to alleviate those concerns. Your input will help us develop different alternatives which may avoid or lesson the impacts to recreation, natural systems, and other values.

“Our analysis will study the issues raised by the public and identified by Forest Service specialists, including ecological values, recreational and scenic values, and historic values of each parcel. This will allow us to develop a Draft Environmental Assessment for your review later next year. At that point, we will again ask for your comments on draft alternatives for the proposed land exchange.

“I personally believe that the best decisions on National Forest management are those which take into careful consideration the big picture as viewed over a long timeline. Thank you for taking the time to learn as much as you can about this proposal and for submitting thoughtful comments.”