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Bear Creek backcountry access drama in Telluride

Private property owners and backcountry skiers are wrangling over access near Telluride.

Inholding speculator Tom Chapman up to his same old tricks

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Land-use dramas are nothing new in Telluride, where private property rights have often clashed with community desires for preservation and access. It was just a couple of years ago that the town rallied in a big way to buy a patch of pasture lands near the entrance to town after the owners floated development plans.

The latest chapter revolves around a set of mining claims high in the San Juans, bordering Telluride Ski Area, and features Tom Chapman, a well-known Western villain who has often been portrayed as wearing the black hat. Chapman’s reputation is well-deserved. He specializes in buying parcels of private property surrounded by public lands, then trying to sell them at inflated prices by threatening to develop them.

His latest deal in Telluride follows a similar pattern, as Chapman has publicly declared that the plan for the parcels includes re-opening historic mines and even opening a high-altitude eco-retreat. Of course, it’s all highly speculative and designed to create the perception that the land has development potential. But the short-term impacts are significant, in that Chapman’s involvement spurred the Forest Service to close off access to a favored backcountry area in the Upper Bear Creek drainage, which had a ripple effect on other activities in the area.

We saw a similar situation in Summit County, when Gary Miller, a Keystone developer with an interest in the Chihuahua backcountry parcel, repeated his “platted townsite” mantra for so long that the Forest Service and county government ultimately caved in to his proposal to trade the land for a publicly owned slopeside parcel worth millions.

But Miller is a well-meaning amateur compared to Chapman, who takes his schtick one level higher by portraying himself as a champion of private property owners. Chapman doesn’t like to be interviewed, but when Aspen-area website publisher Lou Dawson gave him a chance air his views, he did, with a self-serving piece presented as a Q and A that tells only one small piece of the story.

Dawson disclosed how the article came to be, acknowledging that the “questions” were inserted into the pre-written statement by Chapman as a way of creating subheads for the lengthy story. It turns out that Chapman originally wrote his story in response to an e-mail interview by reporter Gus Jarvis, writing for a local magazine. Read the piece here.

A day after Chapman’s communique appeared on Dawson’s Wild Snow website, there was a much better story on the Powder  Magazine website by Tim Mutrie. The PowderMag.com story includes much more background on the mining claims, as well as input from local backcountry skiers, who stand to be the most affected by the changes in in the area. The suggestion is that some, if not many, will simply ignore the closure and poach the area, and the local sheriff doesn’t seem particularly inclined to enforce the closure. Read the Powder version of the story here.

A few days after that, Telluride Magazine chimed in, claiming (sort of) ownership of the original Chapman interview in this post.

And finally, Peter Shelton, the dean of Colorado ski journalists, offered his perspective on the scheming and skullduggery, suggesting that Chapman and the ski resort could even be in cahoots on the Bear Creek deal, which wouldn’t be too far-fetched, considering the extraordinary steps some Colorado resorts take to expand their boundaries, knowing that it’s the best way to slice off just a slightly bigger piece of that non-expanding pie of skier demand. Read Shelton’s piece here.

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