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By Lindsey Bright
Last Thursday, San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles signed a Decision Notice and Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) approving the Environmental Assessment for the Laughlin Park Land Exchange.
The Decision Notice states, “The Forest Service is directed to achieve the optimum landownership pattern to provide for the protection and management of resource uses to meet the needs of the nation now and in the future.”
Laughlin Park was first targeted for acquisition by the Forest Service in 1998 using a congressional appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The reason no exchange took place at that time was, as stated in the Forest Service response, due to the high price land owner Tom Smith was asking for his land.
Work on the exchange began again in 2004, but was suspended in 2005 due to higher priorities for the Pagosa Ranger District. Since Smith, “has no interest in selling the Laughlin Park and non-Federal parcels outright to the Forest Service,” the land exchange process became one of the few viable means left for the Forest Service to acquire the land.
It was in 2010 that Smith signed an amended Agreement to Initiate with the San Juan National Forest and the process once again began.
The negotiations for the exchange were initiated by the U.S. Forest Service Pagosa Ranger District for a simple reason: the Pagosa Ranger District had the 40-acre Dutton Federal parcel surrounded by private land that was inaccessible to the public. Smith had the 62-acre Laughlin Park parcel (six miles northeast of town) and the 160-acre Spiler Canyon parcel (11 miles southeast of town) each surrounded on all sides by public lands.
The notice lists three purposes and needs for action: 1) To consolidate federal and private ownership patterns to reduce the cost of management and increase management efficiency; 2) To acquire non-federal inholdings within the San Juan National Forest to prevent their potential development and impact on the forest; and 3) To acquire inholdings with resources such as wetlands, floodplains, ephemeral streams, riparian areas and wildlife habitat to enhance resource management on adjacent lands. The non-federal lands and interests were appraised at the value of $1,812,500, and the federal land and interests were appraised at the value of $1,813,340. In order to equalize the values, Smith must pay $1,840 to the Forest Service.
“Consolidation of ownership helps to avoid the impacts generated by development and helps to avoid the costs, effort and impacts to the National Forest System lands. All mineral estate under parcels will be transferred with the surface area,” the Decision Notice states.
In an interview with The SUN, Pagosa District Ranger Kevin Khung reiterated that land exchanges by definition are trade offs. Khung said he is aware that some people believe the Oak Brush parcel would have the biggest benefit to the public if it were to remain under public ownership. Khung said, though, that his position requires him to look at the bigger picture, the broader perspective. The land the Forest Service will be acquiring, Khung said, will have the biggest impact because it will prevent development on a parcel of land completely surrounded by public lands.
“It will prevent development and impact to the adjacent areas,” Khung said.
By making both the Spiler Canyon and Laughlin Park tracts federal lands, Khung said that whole ecosystems will be kept intact. While the Oak Brush parcel was already surrounded by development, only a small area would be clear of development.
Some of the comments in opposition to the exchange were based on Oak Brush Hill being a well-used and much-enjoyed tract of public land.
“To trade this for some remote, almost inaccessible pieces of property, which few if any of the public would ever utilize, as outlined in your land exchange proposal borders on preposterous,” Thomas and Evelyn Jones commented.
The response given by the Forest Service said, “Exchanging small parcels of NFS lands that are surrounded by developed private land may cause these lands to become similar to the surrounding private land.”
The steps the Forest Service has taken with this land exchange will prevent changes not only to the acquired land, but the surrounding forest areas as well.
Ron Tinsley and Marcia Jarvis commented, “Oak Brush Hill could easily be made into a really nice park for the public to use, which would be close to town.”
While USFS officials do not counter this, they point out that a parcel recently acquired by Archuleta County is slated to be developed as some type of public park and will be closer to town than Oak Brush Hill. They continue to state, also, that the Coyote Hill and Turkey Springs trailheads are within three miles of Oak Brush Hill.