Minturn opposes McInnis' forest land bill

Tamara Miller
August 6, 2004

Minturn plans to oppose a federal bill that would allow local U.S. Forest Service officials to sell the base of Meadow Mountain and other parcels in and around the town for a profit.

The bill, which U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis, R-Grand Junction, introduced in May, would allow the Forest Service to sell, swap or lease 16 pieces of land in White River National Forest, including Meadow Mountain's parking lot and ranger station.

The Forest Service then could use the proceeds from sales to refurbish or build new facilities. The Eagle County Board of Commissioners recently passed a resolution supporting the bill, but Minturn town officials are drafting a letter that opposes it.

Minturn resident Pete Vance said he isn't necessarily against development of Meadow Mountain's base, but he wants to ensure the public will still be able to use the popular hiking and biking mountain.

"Bottom line, we need to retain a voice in the destiny in that area," he said.


A role for residents?

But the bill doesn't guarantee that Minturn will have a voice at all in the sale of those properties, said Minturn Town Manager Ann Capela. That's particularly worrisome to the town because four of those parcels totaling 32 acres are in or near Minturn, she said.

"The bill is short on specifics, particularly once the sales take place, if any of these possible developers will be subject to local zoning laws," she said.

Faced with a declining budget and increasing costs, Forest Service officials have planned on merging the local administrative offices into one in Eagle for some time. The bill allows the Forest Service the ability to logistically and financially do that, said Blair Jones, McInnis' press secretary.

Capela said the town isn't opposed to that.

"What we oppose is the bill in the current form," she said. "It doesn't allow us to say anything about this. The land doesn't belong to the federal government, it belongs to the public."

Jones countered suggestions that public input would not be considered. In fact, he said, the Forest Service has plans to go above and beyond what is mandated by law to ensure the public is heard.

"This bill ensures that the public will be heard on the future of each parcel," he said. "Federal regulations ensure that."

"To say that the public is cut out of this bill, is just blatantly false," Jones added.

But Capela said the bill doesn't establish any oversight for how funds raised from the sale of forest land properties will be spent.

Since the secretary of agriculture, whose department oversees the Forest Service, need only report the net amount of funds raised from the sale, the public will not know how much the land sold for, or how much was paid to real estate brokers and consultants involved in the sale, Capela said.


Taxpayers' interests

Minturn wants the opportunity to purchase any of those parcels with open space funds, Capela said.

There also is concern that eliminating any Forest Service presence in the Minturn area may hurt the town's economy. Currently, hikers, mountain bikers and kayakers use Meadow Mountain's base as a starting point for their activities.

The parking lot there also is used on Saturdays in the summer to shuttle Minturn Market customers into town.

Minturn is welcome to purchase a Forest Service parcel, but the town must be willing to pay the fair market price for the land, Jones said.

Giving land away or selling at a reduced price would be "contrary to the best interest of the American taxpayer," he said.

Rep. Mark Udall, a Democrat, said he believes the bill is being rushed through Congress without getting any local input. Lawrence Pacheco, a spokesman for Udall, said other communities have expressed similar concerns about the lack of voice neighboring towns would have about the fate of surrounding lands.

"Congressman Udall is not opposed to giving the White River National Forest tools to update and modernize their facilities," Pacheco said. "The problem is the way that the bill was drafted and introduced."

"If Minturn is indeed going to oppose this bill, it just confirms the concerns we have heard from other communities that they were not consulted," he said.

The bill, if it passes, gives the Forest Service the opportunity to dispose of these "excess parcels" as they are identified in the agency's master plan. It does not automatically place those 16 parcels on the auction block.

McInnis' bill aside, there's another mechanism in place that could affect the fate of forest land near Minturn.

The State Land Board continues to negotiate a land swap with the Forest Service that give the federal agency two undevelopable parcels near Edwards in exchange for Meadow Mountain's parking lot, as well as 14 acres south of Minturn where the Nova Guides outfitters are located.

Staff writer Tamara Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 607 or tmiller@vaildaily.com.