Gold Hill Gates Are Closed
by Karen James
Dec 09, 2010 | 4690 views | 10 10 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TELLURIDE – In a blow to backcountry enthusiasts who make use of public lands in the Bear Creek Basin, a regional United States Forest Service official informed local government officials and other interested parties on Tuesday that the agency is removing three access points along Gold Hill Ridge at the edge of the Telluride Ski Resort believed to be responsible for trespass across private landholdings in the basin.

On Thursday, Telluride Ski and Golf Co. CEO Dave Riley confirmed that the gates have, in fact, been closed.

“After much discussion with local and regional staff, I’ve made a decision to remove the backcountry access points along Gold Hill Ridge that generally cause trespass across their private property,” Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza wrote in an email explaining the new policy as a response to requests by private landholders in Upper Bear Creek Basin who believe their holdings are subject to trespass because of the gates.

A fourth gate near Palmyra Peak would be relocated to the upper Prospect Ridge between Mountain Quail and Palmyra Peak, providing access to the Alta Lakes Basin, while the Contention (near the top of Lift 9) and Alta Saddle (south of Bald Mountain) access points will remain at their current locations.

“This should take care of the landowner concerns, but will certainly affect local use of upper Bear [Creek],” Schutza’s email continued. “It will also have an impact on all of our winter outfitter/guides in the drainage. They’ll need approval to operate on private land. Times have changed,” she wrote.

“A lot of people are very fired up; this will not go over well,” said Telluride Mountain Club Director Tor Anderson of the decision, which effectively cuts off public access to a wide swath of public lands, most of which go nowhere near the private holdings, he said.

“Those gates access much more area than the private claims, and the Forest Service has a legal obligation to provide access to public lands,” he said.

“Are they going to shut down hiking from Ophir?” he asked, noting that the public could ultimately trespass on the claims via gates there as well.

“This is a knee-jerk reaction to the landowners,” he said.

San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May, a recipient of the email, was also left scratching her head at the news.

“I don’t understand how they can close the gates when the gates themselves are not on private lands,” she said. “It seems like this is putting private property rights above public access.”

So, too, is local environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance wondering about the decision, which could be interpreted as another win for Tom Chapman, a real estate speculator notorious for his involvement in controversial land trades with the federal government. Chapman purchased three mining claims in Upper Bear Creek last year as a partner in the Gold Hill Development Company.

Following that purchase, the GHDC announced it would be closing public access to parts of popular backcountry ski and hiking routes that traversed its claims. More recently the Telluride Ski Resort last week announced the cancellation of its backcountry guide program in the Bear Creek drainage, citing a “lack of alignment with private owners of mining claims in the drainage.”

“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.”

Chapman had not returned two phone calls seeking comment as The Watch went to press on Wednesday.

“The number one concern is public access being cut off to public lands,” said SMA Executive Director Hilary White, noting that the organization plans to prepare a Freedom of Information Act request to examine the Forest Service’s decision-making process.

“We want to see all the files related to the decisions,” she said.

Indeed, interested locals are wondering whether the Forest Service has the authority to make what they view as a sweeping decision without eliciting any public input other than from the private property owners.

“There’s a question as to whether or not the closure has been done appropriately and through the proper channels,” Anderson said.

“I feel like the Forest Service didn’t use any public process to make this decision to close the gates,” agreed avid Bear Creek backcountry skier Brian O’Neill, who described himself as “saddened” by the decision.

“If they had, they may have learned there are certainly ways people can ski out the gates and not trespass.”

“We want to be good neighbors and discourage trespass,” Schutza said in a Forest Service press release made public late Wednesday afternoon.

Despite the uncertain future of backcountry access into Bear Creek, O’Neill felt confident that if an effort were made to educate users to avoid private property, a compromise might be found.

“People would be very willing to avoid trespassing in an effort to maintain our gate access,” he said.

“You have to trust the public and give it the benefit of the doubt.”

“We believe that, speaking for the ski company, there are public and prescriptive rights that are historic and we’re doing research right now to exercise those rights and we’ll be talking more about that,” said Riley.

“This is a situation where it’s not like Tom Chapman has sat down with us and said we want to be a good community partner and work something out,” he continued. “It’s like we’re all having a gun put to our head and we don’t appreciate that; I don’t the community appreciates it either.”

Rumors on Wednesday that Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza’s decision to close three backcountry access gates into Bear Creek Basin had been revoked by US Forest Service attorneys appear to have been just that. On Thursday, Dec. 9 a Forest Service spokesperson said that no such internal action had taken place to her knowledge, and that the gates had been closed.

“I’ve heard nothing about that,” said Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest External Affairs Officer Lee Ann Loupe.

Responding to questions about whether Schutza’s authority extends as far as closing the gates without the public input many have assumed would be required, Loupe explained that the decision can be made administratively.

“There’s no requirement to do it through [the National Environmental Protection Act process,]” she said, explaining that the gates had been opened by way of administrative decisions, and likewise closed in the same manner.

While it is true that the Forest Service establishes access points such as those on Gold Hill to provide the public with access to public lands, the agency must also be sensitive to the rights of private owners in making those decisions, she said.

This story has been updated to reflect additional reporting.
Comments-icon Post a Comment
December 13, 2010
We can all speculate on what Dave Riley's intentions are but I am willing to take him at his word until proven otherwise.

what we do know is that Chapman is a snake and Judy Schulza is a sycophant. She knows Chapman's MO and still is willing to bow to this snake.

She has to be aware of the political influence that Chapman used to gain possession of Alta Lake property

Although the 1872 Mining Law act has created a huge mess to our public lands, hopefully legalact is correct that we can get them through more recent laws that hold mining claim owners responsible for environmental pollution.

If we only had laws to rid ourselves of human pollution like Tom Chapman
December 13, 2010
So, let me get this straight. A landowner should not have the right to say they do not want the liability of having skiers cross their land? What about people who have owned land up there for generations, long before any of the current people in town have even been born. Seems a bit unfair as they have done nothing wrong.
December 12, 2010
Owning a mining claim is a very risking investment. Even with long cessation of operations, the operator is subject to the Mineral Rules and Regulations of Colorado. They also are more than likely subject to pollution violations from past operators, in most cases. If you were to take a down slope core just outside most mining properties, you will more than likely find pollution of toxic metals, etc. Potential damages claims could exist against an owner/operator in such a situation. Are the mines fenced? Are the pits fenced? Has backfilling and tailings been secured? The Mined Land Reclamation Act is very active law. Is this claim in compliance? I would not want to be the owner of those claims right now. The risk is as high as the reward.
December 10, 2010
Yes, the website and the new T-Ride smart phone apps are perfect examples of the "New Telluride." The pieces were all there, now they are starting to come together.
December 10, 2010
Mr Mathew4U-

Yep, bud, you hit it out of the park.

We do need to pull together and share our love of the Bear Creek experience. Some of us, too old, just love the thought of the others, young and brave, who ski it.

Tride is vibing this year. I think that maybe everyone is in the same boat economically and realize we all need to paddle together. And paddle hard.

We can all contribute-some can contribute money to a legal defense fund, Riley can use his bully pulpit to organize folks and Schutza can listen to all of us and we can get some of the attorneys on board and lets go for that easement. Declarative judgment; an injunction on enforcement of Chapman's claim of winter possession..

Could be a good thing this big negative..round people up for a common objective.

December 10, 2010
Mr. Responsible is correct.

I also posted a comment on the Planet's website about this; I am neutral on the Creek, ski the new glades through the tress, and the big white rooms on the high walls instead.

Let's be smart about this; do not attack Judy or Dave, that is counter productive, attack the two landowners, now, in court, and address the historical easement issue, wear them down in court, outspend them by hiring killer lawyers; the town, as a whole, should get the money together, collectively, hire lawyers and sue the landowners asap, as these things can drag on for years. People will lose their jobs, so do not fight internally as that just weakens the town's resolve, attack the landowners without delay.

Many will jump the gates anyway, as there is a good chance you have a legal easement right to access anyway; it is the wild west up there, as it should be.

Responsible is correct, if you give in the landowners may win; if you jump the gates, bring your avalanche responders, and equipment, and do not get killed up there, it is very very dangerous.

Personally, I am sitting on the fence on this whole issue; I think the biggies are Palmyra Peak, Baldy, and the new runs through the trees.

It is going to be a good year in T-Ride this year; one of the best ever - there is a new vibe in T-Ride, something has changed, the community is pulling together as a team now, let's keep it that way.
December 10, 2010
RFP: I believe your assessment only touches the tip of the iceberg regarding the apparent weakness in Telski's overall position regarding Bear Creek and possible expansion plans.

I'm not going to make any assertions one way or the other, but after seeing the methodology behind the first survey and the way the narrow results (I believe they were narrow due to what would most likely be considered a significantly homogenous sample population) of the second Delta Bowl survey were compiled & subsequently shouted from the rooftops, it dawned on me that THESE are the legs which they intend to stand on! What might be considered by some as a support by what I believe to be skewed stats is somewhat pathetic in my opinion.

I believe the so-called "survey" is just one suspect spoke of a few which allows the illusion of the "larger wheel" to be functional. I don't believe the wheel can withstand a severe blow, but it does still currently have a sufficient "form" & a trajectory to more forward ... provided it has a smooth course to navigate.

Even though it's mostly all transparent to me, it's starting to become exhausting having to "read between the lines" & contemplate different scenarios.

It's possible there's been a hand which has been "overplayed" at this point ... which might force an issue after possibly bringing unexpected scrutiny. I'm sure they'll roll with the punches, but there might be another possible overextension & another ... maybe a BIG mistake will be made and the wheel will cease to roll!

December 10, 2010

The Forest Service is closing public access just because someone "might" trespass on private land? I guess we should close all public accesses - someone "might" trespass everywhere!

If Chapman doesn't want people on his land, he should build some fences or hire security.

Otherwise, the Forest Service shouldn't capitulate to this scum.

December 10, 2010
Seems that this acknowledgment of the inferiority of the (easement by use and practice) skiing rights over the mining claims (the capitulation) works against the prosecution of a skier's claims for easement...I have won and lost easement claims as a land developer..and what matters most (in my simple mind) is the demonstration and continued use of the claimed easement..

In this new scenario, TSG has spoken for all of us...and Schutza in lock step.

OK, time to make some lemonade and ski the new glades, pray for snow, take an early lunch because we are not skiing BC from TSG leased land gates ever again..

Its all good, Tride is still the best place on the continent..

December 09, 2010
If I had to postulate a theory as to what this is all may have been leading up to:

The old access gates to upper BC will be opened only by an approval of an expansion via a "larger deal" which includes the landowners.

... however, maybe this little itty bitty section of the NFS is being watched internally more closely by those higher up the food chain than previously thought!