By Prianka Sharma, Assistant Chief Counsel
On August 8, 2018 Assistant Chief Counsels Jamie Belcore and Prianka Sharma traveled to Elk Mountain Ranch outside Buena Vista, Colorado. A quaint and remote ranch, with little to no cell phone service, and nestled deep into the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, this small business boasted spectacular views, hospitable staff, and friendly horses. The ranch offers an all-inclusive package that has a detailed itinerary of horseback riding, fishing, rafting, and various other activities, including room and board.
Despite the ambience, the business is currently struggling in one major area. The ranch has been in operation for 35 years; current owners Sue and Tom Murphy met while working there in college before buying it form the previous owners. A true family operation, they showed us pictures of their children over the years growing up on the ranch. When they purchased the land they discovered that portions actually belonged to the U.S. Forest Service. Since then, they have spent nearly $50,000 to try to participate in a group land exchange so that they could own all of the land outright. They filed all the necessary paperwork, and paid for all relevant environmental assessments; however since 2001 they have been unable to successfully close on the land exchange sale.
This has created uncertainty and stress for the owners, as currently they operate on permits secured from the Forest Service. Because of this operation, they are always at risk of losing the permit or not having it renewed by the Forest Service, and would thus lose their entire investment. Advocacy staff toured the land and saw the boundary markers between the owned and unencumbered land. If they were to lose it, it would cut directly through their operation and in some cases, directly through the middle of structures on the property.
The Murphy’s are unaware of any reason that their sale has not yet gone through, and are struggling to retain counsel and pay other fees to try to finalize the group land exchange. They have seen various other land owners in their same area finalize purchases, while theirs has gone without finalization for several years.
Advocacy staff was unaware of the group land exchange program and hope to do more research into the current policies and procedures to see if there is relief for the Murphy’s. As many business owners have stated, uncertainty is the slow illness that causes the demise of small business, and we are hopeful that the Murphy’s will soon have security and assurances that they will be able to operate for many years to come.
Advocacy was in Wyoming and Colorado for Regional Regulatory Reform Roundtables August 7-9.
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Prianka Sharma is an Assistant Chief Counsel for Advocacy whose portfolio includes natural resources, agriculture, and energy. Sharma can be reached at Prianka.email@example.com.