Buckboard Marina Owners Frustrated with Boundary Adjustment Misinformation

Buckboard Marina Owners Frustrated with Boundary Adjustment Misinformation

Tony and Jennifer Valdez present a graphic of the Buckboard area from 2015 and a CFR document that states the land within a quarter mile of the Buckboard Marina is restricted during the Sweetwater County Commission meeting. Zoom photo

SWEETWATER COUNTY — A presentation regarding the Buckboard Marina boundary realignment resulted in sparks and frustration during the Sweetwater County Commission meeting Tuesday.

Buckboard Marina owner Tony Valdez gave a presentation on the marina and the boundary realignment, and responded to criticism and concerns that have been raised by the public since word got out about the realignment. He started his presentation questioning why the commissioners have never visited the marina in the four years he’s owned it. 

Valdez said it wasn’t until the boundary realignment that people started showing an interest in his business. 

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“I can’t believe this county, the BS that’s going around, the disinformation about land grabs, we’re selling, we’re doing this and that, yet nobody has come down and asked us,” he said. 

The proposed boundary adjustment would be to the marina’s special use permit which would transfer acreage that currently exists in the water to land surrounding the marina. 

Valdez explained that the reasoning for the adjustment is due to water levels decreasing. Valdez’ current lease is for 77 acres, of which 44 acres is in the water. As he began working on a master plan, he started wondering about what happens to the 44 acres if water levels continue to decrease. 

“Where’s my 77 acres, with 44 acres of water, when the water evaporates? That was my question, that was brought to the [Ashley National] Forest Service,” he said. 

Tony Valdez compares a graphic of Buckboard in 2023 (left) compared to the area in 2015 to show the loss of water in the last few years. Zoom photo

JFC Engineering drew up a site plan with a 100-foot setback from the shoreline to readjust the boundary accounting for loss of water in the Flaming Gorge. Valdez was also told by the Forest Service that his lease entitles him to 80 acres, and he was currently only leased about 77 acres. Therefore the realignment includes the extra acreage. 

Valdez also noted that there is a Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) in place that restricts camping and shooting within a quarter mile of a facility such as the marina. He said this restricted zone has always been in place. He said that the boundary realignment is all still within the quarter mile that is already within this restricted zone, so he is not taking up any land that was previously for public access. 

He added that he and several others believe the federal government and the Bureau of Reclamation has been stealing Wyoming water for three years. He said the Gorge is 3.7 million gallons, and the federal government’s plan is to take out 1.5 million gallons. He noted that that’s almost half of the reservoir, which is 45 feet of volume. 

“This water right now [at the marina] is 23 to 25 feet deep,” he said. He questioned where that leaves the marina if water is taken from the Gorge. 

He said to address future water concerns, he needs to put piers and campsites further down the channel because if too much water is lost boats won’t be able to access the marina. Therefore, he needs to readjust the boundary so it follows along the shoreline. 

“In the consideration of the public, we have not taken up one piece of earth, we’re not trying to, this is an adjacent so I can keep functioning in Sweetwater County,” Valdez said. 

Addressing Frustrations

Valdez expressed frustration with the misinformation that has been circulating around the community, accusing him of doing a land grab. He also said that he presented his alignment to the federal government, and that he does not have to put that process through the county as it deals with federal lands. 

“I deal directly with the federal government. I don’t have to go to you guys, they have to go to you guys. That’s the chain of command I follow. And all of a sudden I’m the bad guy,” he said. “…I’m a little bit pissed off, yeah, but this is the reasoning for this adjustment. It’s not a land grab, it’s about a small business trying to survive.’

The Commission said that they never claimed Valdez needed to go through the county, but rather had an issue with the Forest Service not allowing the county a proper commenting period through a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Commissioner Island Richards said that the county is a cooperating agency, but they can’t give proper comments if they don’t have the information and time to do so. 

“What we have is comment ability and we can’t do that unless we have good information, and it took us several meetings just to get copies of the actual realignment and what it looks like,” Richards said. 

Valdez said that he wants the Commission to come to the marina and visit, and again asked why none of them had visited in the past four years of his ownership. 

Chairman Keaton West said that the standing commissioners have not been serving on the board for four years, and that as soon as the boundary readjustment was brought to their attention, Commissioner Mary Thoman and Land Use Director Eric Bingham visited and brought back a “tremendous report”. 

Valdez also brought up frustrations he has with fire safety at the marina, the lack of year-round water supply, decrease in kokanee salmon in the Gorge, and he also expressed a complaint that the marina is not on the Sweetwater County Travel & Tourism’s bus tour of the Flaming Gorge. 

When Valdez brought up an issue of people shooting high-power rifles near the marina, Chairman West attempted to direct Valdez back to the issue of the realignment, as the concerns were all issues they have no control over. 

“This is a public safety issue, you know about public safety? You’re an elected official, you took an oath, there’s a public safety issue here that has to be addressed,” Valdez said to West. 

West said that the Commission gave Valdez his time, and now the Commission needed uninterrupted time to address his comments. 

“We did not ask for the realignment. The public brought it to our attention so we’re diving into it. As you mentioned, it is not our decision, it is between you and the Forest Service and the lease that you have. I don’t think that it’s a negative thing for us to dig into the details and figure out, there are always two sides to the story and that’s why we appreciate you coming to bring your side to our attention. The invitation was extended, Commissioner Thoman and Mr. Bingham went down and visited. I don’t think the full Commission needs to attend, we also violate open meeting act rules when we do that. We haven’t even taken a position on it, we’ve been trying to gather information on it, we’re hearing from multiple constituent concerns. The Forest Service came and presented to us on what the situation was so we’re continuously digging to figure out what’s going on. We think we owe that to the public,” West said.

Chairman West said that he understood Valdez’s frustration, but that he would ask for a little bit more respect as they discuss the issue. 

“We’re not here to get into an argument back and forth when ultimately, it’s the federal government making the decision,” West said. “You are a small business, you are a recreation business. That’s important to the tourism in this community and we want to support that.” 

Commissioner Richards responded to Valdez’ complaint that the commissioners had not visited the marina prior to this issue, pointing out that there are thousands of businesses in the county. 

“Your business is important to us but so are those other thousands and we don’t have the resources to go visit every business in Sweetwater County in anticipation that at some point they’re going to have some needs,” Richards said. 

Richards also noted that the Commission has meetings every other week with public comment periods. 

“We did not hear from you at any point until the public started coming to us with issues. We represent 45,000 people in this county and a lot of them, more letters than on any other issues we’ve dealt with, came to us with concerns,” Commissioner Richards said. “I don’t think a single one of us went out and said you were doing a land grab, I don’t think any of us brought up any untruths. All we did was ask questions. We are a cooperating agency with commenting ability with the Forest Service. One of the things that requires of the Forest Service is that they notify us of their plans, and that did not happen in this case. That is our concern.” 

Not a Land Grab

Commissioner Richards said that he believes Valdez’s “aggressions” towards the Commission are misplaced. 

“I’m honestly unsure as to why you came here, because we were under the impression that we were going to get an explanation of your realignment, and we got about two minutes of that and we’ve got about 25 minutes of all your problems with the Forest Service, which we cannot solve unless it’s through the cooperating agency status. That’s all we have,” he said. 

Jennifer Valdez, co-owner of the Marina, claimed it is “a little combative” between the Valdez’ and the Commission because she believes the Commission informed the previous marina owner of the realignment so he could speak publicly on it. 

“You guys informed the previous owners so that he could come and speak publicly and put out all the misinformation that went in the papers, and we have all this public thinking that we’re trying to do a land grab. Which is nothing like what we’re doing,” she claimed. 

Commissioner Robb Slaughter refuted that claim, stating that the previous owner reached out to him but not the other way around. 

“I can unequivocally state to you that we did not inform the prior owners of what took place with this. They did contact me with concerns about this, but we did not reach out to them,” Slaughter said. “Our interests lie with respect to protecting the interest of the public. We have concerns, as Commissioner Richards stated, with respect to what took place with the Ashley National Forest, but it’s certainly in our best interest to have a marina out there and to work with you.” 

Approval of Letter to Forest Service

The Commission previously approved for a letter to be sent to Ashley National Forest requesting that the realignment go through the NEPA process before any final decisions are made. The board officially approved the letter during Tuesday’s meeting in a 5-0 vote.

The letter states, “According to 36 CFR 251.54(g)(2)(ii) ‘Federal, State and local government agencies and the public shall receive adequate notice and an opportunity to comment upon a special use proposal accepted as a formal application in accordance with Forest Service NEPA procedures.’ Sweetwater County believes there has been insufficient time for public agencies and public to comment.”

It goes on to say, “at the May 16, 2023 Board of County Commissioners meeting, a motion was made and passed by the Board of County Commissioners to object to the issuance of a special use permit as a CE in favor of an environmental assessment process. In this process, Sweetwater County encourages the Forest Service to schedule public meetings to facilitate public discussion and education of the specific details of the effect of the boundary realignment.”

The Commission believes the lack of notice and communication from the Forest Service has caused the public to have concerns that may not even be based in accuracy. More communication could fix those concerns, they said. The letter also asks that the quarter mile of restricted zone surrounding the marina not be increased.

The letter can be read in full below.