Forest Service inks golf swap
Modified land exchange draws strong objections

The Chris Park Campground sign welcomes visitors to the popular Haviland Lake Recreation Area, located north of Durango. Last week, the Forest Service announced approval of a modified plan, which will trade 228 acres of public land near Chris Park to the Glacier Club for a new golf course and up to 125 homes. In exchange, the agency will receive 170 acres of inholdings and $444,000 in cash./File photo

by Will Sands

Hiking trails and picnic tables are on the verge of becoming fairways and vacation homes just north of Durango. Last week, the Forest Service announced approval of a modified plan to replace a portion of the Haviland Lake Recreation Area with nine additional holes of golf and as many as 125 homes. In exchange, the agency will convert two parcels high on the Forest Service wish list into public land and receive a generous amount of cash. The approval is already stirring strong emotions in the greater Durango community, and at least one appeal is already in the works.

Several years ago, Western Land Group, a Denver-based outfit specializing in facilitating public land transactions, approached the Forest Service on behalf of the Glacier Club. At that time, the resort had secured options to purchase two 160-acre parcels representing the only private inholdings remaining in the Hermosa Creek Roadless Area. One is located in Hermosa Park near the Hermosa Creek trailhead and the other sits high above the Animas River Valley at Mitchell Lakes. Speaking to the significance of the parcels, Ann Bond, Forest Service public information officer, commented, “The parcels are the only reason we’re considering this. They’ve been on our acquisition list for decades. Those are the last two private parcels in the Hermosa Roadless Area.”

In exchange, the Glacier Club requested approximately 320 acres north of the existing resort and currently inside the Haviland Lake Recreation Area. The acreage would be subdivided into exclusive homesites and another nine holes of golf, bringing the resort’s total to 36 holes.

After several years of study, numerous public hearings and various land appraisals, the Forest Service put a modified stamp on the land exchange. Last week, just prior to Memorial Day Weekend, the agency announced approval of a “lighter” land swap configuration.

According to the decision, the Forest Service will acquire the coveted 160 acres in Hermosa Park as well as a 10.3-acre inholding inside the Weminuche Wilderness. In exchange, the agency will transfer 228 acres inside the Haviland Lake Recreation Area to the Glacier Club. In order to pick up some slack between appraised values, the Glacier Club will make a $444,000 “cash-equalization payment” to the U.S. government. Mitchell Lakes, the other 160 acre parcel, was dropped from the land exchange when the Glacier Club and the land owner were unable to agree upon a purchase price.

Upon making the announcement, San Juan National Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles wrote that the final decision was an attempt to strike a balance.

“We thank the public for a lively and energetic discourse, which I believe led to a decision that better reflects the community’s values,” he wrote.

Though the decision was applauded by U.S. Sen. Mark Udall and U.S. Rep. John Salazar, it generated a more subdued response on the ground in Durango. Kitty Benzar, a concerned citizen and longtime Haviland Lake user, expressed her disappointment. She noted that the final outcome too closely resembled the original proposal and vowed to file an appeal of the decision. “I think the Forest Service’s modified alternative is a total loss to the public,” she said. “I think the next step of the process has to be an appeal.”

Benzar reiterated many longstanding public concerns about the land swap – a long tradition of hiking, cross-country skiing, bird watching and other activities at Haviland Lake; that the Hermosa Park parcel is too remote to be considered a comparable exchange; and that the Glacier Club development would effectively wipe out a large portion of a historic wagon road, among other things.

“This exchange is pretty much the same now as it was then,” she said. “It’s obvious that the Forest Service has been in bed with the Glacier Club since the beginning and is ready to give away the farm.”

When the land swap first saw daylight, Rockwood resident Richard Robinson formed the group, Save the Haviland Lake Recreation Area. Though Robinson shared Benzar’s concerns, he did credit the Forest Service for making some progress in the last three years but added that it was not enough.

“What they’ve done is more in the right direction,” he said. “But it still doesn’t get us to where we want to be.”

Robinson added that the proposal does not offer an adequate buffer between the proposed Glacier Park development and the Chris Park campground. In addition, it makes no guarantee against the resort pursuing similar expansions at some point in the future.

“It’s true that we could have lost all the acreage and come up totally empty,” Robinson said. “But this thing is still far from perfect.”

Like Benzar, Save the Haviland Lake Recreation Area has started looking into an appeal. The exchange agreement was signed last Friday but will not be implemented until after a 45-day appeal period has ended and all appeals are resolved. And while the Glacier Club had planned on breaking ground in 2011, resolution of the differences surrounding the land swap could take longer than expected.

“I don’t think the Glacier Club should start getting ready to move dirt anytime soon,” Benzar said in closing. •

Documents regarding the Hermosa Park Land Exchange are available for public review at: ?project=20955 or in person at the San Juan Public Lands Center, 15 Burnett Court.