The system worked right

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By Optic Editorial Board

State Land Commissioner Ray Powell did the right thing by reversing a land swap that his predecessor, Patrick Lyons, had arranged. Powell has effectively returned White Peak in Colfax and Mora counties to the people — where it rightly belongs.

In 2009, Lyons negotiated an agreement to swap 7,205 acres of state trust land at White Peak for 3,330 acres of ranch land. The exchange was one of four proposed by the State Land Office under Lyons that would have traded 14,000 acres of public land for 9,600 acres owned by White Peak ranches.

When it was first proposed, the swap immediately set off an outcry of opposition, and for good reason. Not only did the land swap look like a bad deal for the public — the land is a popular hunting area — but public input was minimized and the public auction requirement ignored. Lyons was forced to defend the land exchanges in the twilight of his time in office, contending that the deals would consolidate land holdings, improve public access and resolve management problems. His claims fell short of convincing people that this was anything other than a sweetheart deal for some of his wealthy landowner buddies.

Ultimately, the process worked to the benefit of the greater good, by stopping Lyons’ plan. Credit the demolition of the would-be exchanges to three sources of power:

• The people. When this deal began to fall into place, Norteños cried foul. Their opposition was impossible to ignore. Without the people’s intervention, the deal may well have gone through, quietly and without fanfare, to the benefit of only a handful of people.

• Constitutional checks and balances. State Attorney General Gary King challenged the State Land Office’s planned exchange early on, claiming that Lyons violated the law by approving the swap without a public auction. Then, in January, the state Supreme Court substantiated the AG’s claim, ruling that the Land Office had not followed the public auction requirement.

• The election. Powell ran for land commissioner last year in opposition to the White Peak land swap, and following his win, immediately made good on his promises by placing a moratorium on all pending land deals. Then, after the Supreme Court voided the White Peak land swap, Powell drove the nail in the coffin last week. After all, he could have backed up and allowed the public auction to take place, then the swap could have moved forward, but he did what he said he’d do and returned the land to the people.

Too often we see how the system doesn’t work for the people. This time, we see how it can — and did — work for our state’s citizenry.