He buys land surrounded by public lands, special places cherished by conservationists and outdoor recreationalists, and then closes it or threatens to develop it.
Thus, with the unwilling cooperation of the media – we who are helpless to report such dramatic news – Chapman inflames the sensibilities of a highly passionate group of people, using their very fury to try to force the purchase of his inholding at the highest price.
All of this in the name of defending private property rights, a purportedly principled purpose. Never mind that the property in question – generally an obsolete mining claim acquired over a century ago for an altogether different purpose – represents a loophole in the strategy whereby the public has attempted to manage precious land for the greater good.
Chapman has surely found a soft spot now, in what has often been said to be Telluride’s cathedral, Bear Creek.
Late this year, Chapman announced he had acquired mining claims in Bear Creek, asserting it would be impossible for hikers to ascend or skiers to descend without trespassing, effectively threatening to close one of the most cherished places in the western San Juans.
Even before Chapman’s entrance from stage right, the drama of Bear Creek was rich with conflict and a major story in the Western San Juans. Would this sacred place remain a preserve for backcountry skiers? Or would the Telluride Ski and Golf Co. attempt to gain approval for a lift there? And if one lift was permitted, would others follow? Would lifts despoil the cathedral? Or make it more accessible for more people’s worship?
Chapman dealt a blow to backcountry enthusiasts and the Telluride Ski and Golf Co., after his development firm purchased mining claims in Bear Creek that eventually caused the closure of three U.S. Forest Service backcountry access points along Gold Hill Ridge, as well as putting an end to Telski guided tours of Bear Creek.
On March 26, The Gold Hill Development Company, in which Chapman is a partner, purchased the Modena, Gertrude and Little Bessie mining claims for a price of $246,000.
“GHDC intends to enforce its right to exclude people from its private property by using Colorado trespass law if necessary,” stated a press release issued by Chapman at the time.”
The purchase came just after the U.S. Forest Service issued Telski a one year permit that allows guides to take clients into the public lands of Bear Creek through the backcountry access gates.
While Chapman didn’t come out and say it, his firm’s purchase looked to be in line with his modus operandi, which is to buy private in-holdings surrounded by or adjacent to public land, and then threatening to develop them in order to force lucrative land trades with the federal government.
For example, in 1984, while acting as a real estate agent for a rancher, Chapman brought a bulldozer into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument to start building infrastructure for a 132-home subdivision, according to The Denver Post. The move eventually saw the National Park Service buy the 4,200-acre ranch at $510 an acre, although it had been appraised at $200 an acre. In the early 1990s he began building a luxury log cabin on 240 acres in the West Elk Wilderness near Paonia that he purchased for $960,000, only stopping after negotiating a land trade with Forest Service in which he got 105 acres near Telluride, which he then sold for more than $4 million.
Just after the CHDC purchase, Telski purchased the Dandy Lode mining claim in Upper Bear Creek for $24,700 in a deal that was interpreted by many as the next step in the ski area’s expansion into Bear Creek.
With Teski inching closer to developing a new master plan, the ski area issued a survey in October that effectively asked visitors to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on expansion into Bear Creek’s Delta Bowl, a move that would include a new fixed cable chairlift. Approximately 84 percent of those who participated in the survey gave a thumbs up to the expansion.
Chapman, who often claims his side of the story is never told, gave a lengthy interview to The Watch in October stating that the expansion described in the survey would violate the private property rights of landholders in Bear Creek.
“The landowners have every right to sit here and complain about this,” Chapman said.
“The town says it’s not liable. The county says it’s not liable. It’s a Forest Service problem. You think anyone can sue the Forest Service? No. So who do you think gets sued here? First it will be the landowner anywhere near the accidental death site. So will Telski. They are kidding themselves if they don’t believe they will be held liable.”
Chapman then claimed that GHDC plans to reopen the various mines on its parcels as well as open an eco-tourism facility on the Modena Parcel. He also said that he plans to enter the courtroom to prove his firm has a superior right to use the Gold Hill Road, which crosses the ski area, to his claims. He even threatened to plow the road during the ski season.
Chapman’s victory came in early December when U.S. Forest Service officials removed the three backcountry access points along the Gold Hill Ridge that generally cause trespass across private property. The closure of the gates also meant the end of Telski’s guided tours of Bear Creek.
“We respect the Forest Service’s decision,” said Telski CEO Dave Riley. “Obviously this was driven by private landowners, primarily Tom Chapman, because this wasn’t an issue until he purchased the property.” “Since we’ve withdrawn our permit for guiding we’re no longer in the business of managing anything back there, but I’m sure a lot of people are going to be very disappointed, and I doubt that this conversation is over; I don’t think this solves anything.”