PAONIA, Colo. — Billionaire Bill Koch, who has made his presence felt in Aspen by suing the city over hydropower water rights and proposing a million-dollar guardrail on Castle Creek Road, has also attracted the attention of residents over McClure Pass.
Koch, who is building a Western-style compound on his 4,500-acre Bear Ranch east of Paonia Reservoir and below Ragged Mountain, is proposing a federal land swap that would grant him control of a three-mile strip of BLM land separating his ranch.
In exchange, he would give the government private land he controls overlooking Blue Mesa Reservoir in Gunnison County and an in-holding he has under option in Dinosaur National Monument, along with other inducements to win local public support.
On Wednesday at a Paonia Town Council meeting, so many people showed up to comment on Koch’s proposed land swap that the meeting had to be moved from town hall to a theater across the street, where the crowd still filled the main floor, balcony and aisles.
The assembled crowd of ranchers, teachers, retirees, mine workers and other locals were intent upon speaking their piece about the proposed land exchange, as were representatives of Bear Ranch.
The BLM land “makes it difficult for us to manage our herds, control noxious weeds and prevent trespassing and poaching,” said Rob Gill, the manager of Bear Ranch, where about 50 ranch hands are employed in the winter raising beef cattle and longhorns.
But artist Tara Miller said Wednesday night that the key issue was about giving up the current wilderness access that the BLM land provides.
A well-maintained road winds across the BLM land and leads to a trail along Deep Creek, which offers a short hike to the heart of the Raggeds Wilderness. This public access would go away if the swap is approved.
The BLM road also connects the two halves of Bear Ranch. One high curve in the road offers a glimpse of the fantasy town that 150 workers employed by Koch are erecting on a cluster of residential lots.
“Why should we give it up just so someone should have some privacy?” Miller said about the BLM land. “There’s no reason the ranch needs that for their grazing lands. It’s about our access to our public lands.”
But Tracy Tooker, whose family roots in Paonia stretch back more than a century, said “To my knowledge, none of them have ever stepped foot” on the BLM land that splits Bear Ranch.
The land swap
The federal swap would create a new public easement to the Ragged Mountain area across the former Buck Creek Ranch, which is farther up Highway 133 toward McClure Pass. Koch currently has that land under contract. (See map at bottom of story.)
The new access is seen as an improvement for ATV users, but is a harder and less direct route for hikers heading for the wilderness than the Deep Creek trail, which would be closed under the swap.
Koch has also proposed to build a new mountain biking trail parallel to an existing Forest Service trail popular with ATV riders that runs alongside the section of Kebler Pass Road just east of the reservoir. Historically, the Forest Service has not favored parallel trails.
Bear Ranch manager Gill confirmed Wednesday that Colorado’s congressional delegation will be asked to introduce a federal land swap bill this year.
The BLM land splitting the ranch that Koch seeks measures 1,846 acres. In exchange, he would give the government private land he either owns or has an option to buy, including 911 acres in the Curecanti National Recreational Area in Gunnison County, 80 acres inside Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and a 20-acre parcel adjacent to BLM lands near Paonia on Jumbo Mountain.
He’s also put under contract the 811-acre Buck Creek Ranch and said he will put a trailhead and a trail easement across it to connect with the Ragged Mountain Trail as part of the deal.
The Gunnison County commissioners and the Delta County commissioners have voted to support the bill, which is a revised version of one introduced two years ago that never made it out of committee. Pitkin County commissioners, whose jurisdiction is close to but does not include any of the areas affected by the swap, have not weighed in on the matter.
On January 3, elected officials in Crested Butte deferred a decision on endorsing the plan until they have more information. The board meets again on the matter Tuesday.
Bear Ranch is also seeking support from the seven-member Paonia Town Council, whose members did not vote on the issue Wednesday due to a lack of quorum. But the council members at the meeting got an earful.
Retired High Country News publisher Ed Marston, who has led a Paonia-based charge against the land swap, said “there is no doubt it is a very bad deal for the public and a very good deal for Mr. Koch.”
On the other hand, Vic Ullrey of the newly formed Western Slope Constitutional Patriots said his group supports the exchange as it’s a “win-win situation [that’s] good for the nation in general.”
“When all the hype settles down, there will only be a few people disadvantaged from this. On the contrary, tens of thousands will benefit from it,” Ullrey said.
Opponents criticize billionaire ranch owner’s “need” for privacy.
“When Mr. Koch bought that property, he knew about that trail,” said Celia Roberts, a local photographer. “I live near a railroad track. Would I expect the railroad company to change the railroad track?” she asked rhetorically.
Sarah Bishop said she has two things in common with Koch: Bishop owns a ranch near Paonia and a public road splits her property in two.
“I live with it. It’s part of the landscape,” Bishop said, noting that she is opposed to the proposed swap, calling it “bad public policy.”
In a community that prides itself on an egalitarian spirit, several speakers framed the debate in class war terms. Those responses came on the same day the Pew Research Center said conflict between the wealthy and poor is at its highest level in 25 years.
Though she’s never set foot on the strip of BLM land or on the Deep Creek trail, resident Caroline Metzler said, “It’s clear the wealth and power of the 1 percent is capable of acting in a way that threatens the access of the 99 percent.”
Hal Brill, a Paonia-area property owner opined, “I’m sorry there’s an overtone of ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Anne Rickbaugh, an Aspen resident and a member of Pitkin County’s Open Space and Trails board, told the Paonia council that Carbondale had similar experiences on land issues with three billionaires, including Leslie Wexner.
Pitkin County commissioners declined to support Wexner’s proposal, similar in nature to Koch’s, that would privatize a strip of public land in the middle of a private ranch. Wexner has since opted to forgo a congressionally approved federal land swap and work directly with the BLM to achieve his goals administratively.
“I urge you to move slowly, ask questions, make demands and make it very hard for people to take public land away from people,” Rickbaugh said.
Following the nearly three-hour meeting, Tom Glass, a former mayor of Crested Butte who is working on the Bear Ranch land exchange through Western Land Group Inc., (also Wexner’s consultants on his land swap) emphasized that he and others are listening to the public.
“We still have a work in progress,” Glass said. “We need to pay attention to what we heard tonight.”
Also, please see: Bear Ranch and the price of privacy from Aspen Journalism.
Notes for map below: The tan (private) parcels with the words "Deep Creek" and "Williams" on them are the two halves of Bear Ranch. The BLM land is between the two tan parcels and has slanted lines on it. The "CR 2" in the white circle near Paonia Reservoir stands for "County Road 2." The red dot on the reddish parcel is a new trailhead proposed for Buck Creek Ranch. From there, new trails would connect to the existing Ragged Mountain Trail, which is shown in black. The proposed parallel bike/hike trails are shown above and below the Ragged Mountain trail in dotted yellow lines. Source: Central Rockies Land Exchange