The county’s action comes in response to efforts by the GHDC, which owns patented mining claims in Bear Creek, to close the trails.
The April 4 letter signed by Board Chair Elaine Fischer states that more than a year of research regarding the two trails’ legal status has determined that GHDC claims of trespass and its posting of armed guards to guarantee closure are invalid.
In its research, San Miguel County found that the Ouray County Commissioners had made a “concerted effort” to create a public network of trails in the Bear Creek Basin, and to appropriate funds for the maintenance of those trails, in 1879. San Miguel County, carved out of Ouray County in 1883, inherited established trails in Bear Creek.
According to its letter, San Miguel County concluded that “the Wasatch and East Fork Trails are the trails referenced in Ouray County’s 1879 declaration, and they have remained public trails on essentially the same alignment ever since.”
Furthermore, the county said it has compiled substantial evidence proving that both trails on their entirety “are public trails by virtue of 20 years of adverse use by the public, as well as the provisions of [Revised Statute 2477],” which grants counties and states right-of-way across federal lands.
Last summer there was some question as to whether the portions of the trails that crossed GHDC claims were open for public use. GHDC partner Tom Chapman and Principal Ron Curry contended the trails were closed to the public, threatening to post guards on GHDC claims to stop hikers from what they believed was trespassing.
On the other hand, organizations like the Telluride Mountain Club contended that the public use of the trails preceded the private property owners’ claims. TMC President Tor Anderson said Thursday that the county’s finding is not surprising.
“We are really, really happy about this and we are glad San Miguel County is staying involved,” Anderson said. “This is what we have been saying all along. This is really good for the public and it sounds like they have a very strong case. We are glad the county has taken this on and we will see where it goes.”
When reached by phone, Chapman offered no comment, while GHDC legal council reviews the finding.