Ram-rodding sale of public lands

Mark Eleison, Dolores - 07/30/2020

To the editor,

In violation of the public interest, Derek Padilla, head of the San Juan National Forest Service (“Caring for the land and serving people”), is currently ramrod-ing the sale of 39.99 acres – note that suspicious number – of National Forest land, just north of the Rico town limits, to the Atlantic Richfield Co., owned by BP America.

The national forest land at issue lies on the western slope of Telescope Mountain, above and adjacent to the ARCO mining clean-up site that borders on the east side of the Dolores River. Crossing the parcel is the Enterprise Mine branch-line grade of the Rio Grande Southern Railroad. Its historic value and its inevitable deterioration from adverse effects that will result from private ownership is well documented. (Cultural Resource Inventory [SJNF #2018-30]; Colorado Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation [SHPO] [5DL478.19]).

The historical branch-line grade, furthermore, is an easily walkable trail that offers a magnificent, sun-drenched vista of the Dolores River, the San Juan Mountains to the west and north, and a startling partial view of La Plata range peaks to the south. It also could potentially link with the RGS main-line grade that wraps around the east side of Burns Canyon, 2 miles north of Rico. 

In a letter to a Rico resident, Padilla justified this transaction on the ARCO-sourced notion that its work “would be more efficient and eliminate potential liability to the public domain if these lands were in their ownership.” Confused as that reasoning is, what is clear about it is that ARCO’s remediation work does not require the public to give up ownership of this parcel of national forest land. 

Additionally, according to his letter to the Rico town manager, wherein Padilla invites the town to “concur” in a memoranda of agreement pertaining to this deal, Padilla is basing this sale on an obscure sub-paragraph of the Code of Federal Regulations. That subsection refers to the “conveyance” of small “mineral survey fractions” that “must not exceed 40 acres in any one transaction.” This parcel, however, has been lopped off from a much larger area of Forest Service land so as to fit, like the traveler being made to fit the Procrustean bed, to the less than 40-acre requirement, not because it was a “mineral survey fraction.” (Title 36, sub part C, 254.34 [a]).

Most important, however, is that this “conveyance must be determined to be in the public interest.” To that end, the Forest Service is enjoined to consider two criteria. (254.36 [b] [254.36 c 3 5]):  

1. “Access to and use and enjoyment of national forest system lands by the general public will not be unduly impeded or restricted.”

2. Scenic, wildlife, environmental, historical, archeological or cultural values will not be substantially affected or impaired.”

Is there any doubt that Padilla has failed to meet this criteria?

The Town of Rico Board of Trustees is not contesting this sale. Though Trustee Patrick Fallon made a motion to seek a court injunction stopping the sale at a June meeting, Mayor pro tem Nicole Pieterse prevailed on the Board not to go that far. “We do not want to alienate Mr. Padilla,” she said. Pieterse is the “executive coordinator” of the Rico Trails Alliance, whose projects are nearly all subject to Padilla’s approval. She and another Rico Board member are married to RTA Board members. 

At the July 15 meeting of the Town Board, Mayor Barbara Betts, without a vote and preventing public discussion of the issue that had been scheduled, confirmed with Town Manager Kari Distefano that the Town of Rico’s position regarding the pending sale will be on bended knee: asking ARCO for a public easement. For those who believe an easement “granted” by ARCO to placate the public now will not be rescinded later due to “public safety” concerns, well, I know of a bridge in Brooklyn that I can get for you wholesale. 

If you agree that this pending sale of national forest land violates the public interest and therefore should not go through, please let Padilla know it at derek.padilla@usda.gov or 970-882-6834.