Politics, class issues complicate Colorado land dispute

Jack Healy / New York Times News Service /

PAONIA, Colo. — This is a story of a quiet billionaire and a middle-class mountain town, of class divisions, small-town quarrels and competing visions of the future of the West. But at its core, it is really all about land.

Specifically, it is about a mostly forgotten belt of public land that cuts straight through a ranch owned by the industrialist Bill Koch, whose brothers Charles and David are top Republican contributors.

A century ago, sheepherders used the corridor to move their flocks without crossing private property. For decades after, it was mostly forgotten by everyone but a few hunters and hikers. But recently, Koch has made it perhaps the most contested ground for miles around, setting off a debate about private property and public access, privilege and tradition.

Three years back, Koch offered a deal to the government that would let him acquire the federally owned corridor that splits his property.

In return, he would donate two smaller but more valuable and often visited private parcels to the National Park Service: one in the Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, the other near a dazzling reservoir about 70 miles from here.

Locally, the reaction to Koch’s land swap, and to the man himself, has been complicated.

To the staunchest opponents, it was simple: A powerful out-of-town landowner wanted to close public lands in their backyard so he could have the run of his.

But Koch is also one of the biggest employers around Paonia. His coal mine in Somerset employs 348 people, and his gas company has 20 workers.

Koch’s plans for his ranch have also fueled intrigue. For the last three years, he has been painstakingly piecing together his own Old West town from relocated historic buildings and new construction made to look old. One day, Koch plans to fill the buildings with his growing collection of Western memorabilia. He has said he wants it to remain a private refuge for his family, historians and school tours, not open to the general public.

Still, from a rutted county road on (for now) public land, it is a marvel to see this tiny town rise from scratch. It is a view, of course, that curious onlookers would lose if the land exchange went through. Some critics suspect that is the point.

“It’s all about privacy,” said Jim Sims, who owns a nearby ranch and opposes the deal. “All it does is kick the public off of some prime ground that they should have access to.”

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