But I did it because I think his notoriety is justified. It strikes me as dishonorable to acquire private property surrounded by public land precisely in order to hold it for ransom.
Chapman has stated that he does this to represent the interests of folks who have owned inholdings but have been unable to realize much value from them. He does it because he believes in the sanctity of private property rights, most essentially the right to realize as much value as possible from property ownership.
Chapman is not alone in this. Many Americans believe that private property is the basis of American democracy, the very definition of freedom. Others believe that while private property may be a cornerstone of our society, the right to own property and do with it whatever you choose is not quite so absolute. We believe that there are other values that must be considered – the public interest – in the organization of a functional democracy.
This, indeed, is perhaps the biggest fault line in American politics. Where some see any imposition on private property rights as encroaching socialism and thus, obviously, wrong, others see reasonable constraints on private property rights to ensure that the public interest is also protected. Some of us don’t even mind if it’s called socialism.
So Chapman and I are simply on opposite sides of the great American political divide.
To his credit, Chapman has found a way to endow inholdings with far more economic value than what environmentalists and public land advocates have been willing to accord them. Those who cherish public lands have taken the position that inholdings, by and large, have little or no economic value because they aren’t developable. Money to protect open space was better spent elsewhere, they have believed, to protect land that really is threatened with undesirable development.
Most inholdings on federal land were created as patented mining claims by the obsolete Mining Law of 1872 (long overdue for repeal or a massive rewrite) to encourage mining. Mining today is not a viable industry in most of the West. So the inholdings really do have no economic value except to the degree that they can be threatened with development and thus held for ransom. That’s what Chapman has done in several instances before, and is doing now with inholdings in Bear Creek.
He has basically declared, “You environmentalists and users of public lands think these inholdings are worthless? Well, you have another think coming.”
Chapman has argued that the public, or preservationists, have had plenty of opportunities to purchase the inholdings over the years, but haven’t done it. He sure has a point there. When Telluride brutally debated and rejected the proposed Idarado annexation agreement almost a decade back, the anti-annexation forces argued, with clear success, that there was no need to approve the annexation, which they believed came with too much adverse impact, even though it would have transferred thousands of acres to the U.S. Forest Service, because those inholdings were not developable anyway.
Now Chapman has grabbed the heart of Bear Creek.
Even before Chapman entered the picture the Telluride community was gearing up for a classic Telluride showdown over a tentative proposal from the Telluride Ski & Golf Co. to open a portion of Bear Creek to lift-served skiing. Now, suddenly, both sides – pro lift-served skiing in BC and anti lift-served skiing in BC – have a new party to consider as the issue is engaged. This week Chapman dramatically upped the ante by suggesting not just one, but as many as five or six lifts in Upper Bear Creek.
Whatever else one might say about Chapman, the guy has an instinct for occupying center stage.
Having grabbed our attention, there is little likelihood that Chapman will back off now. He is suing the ski company for the right to plow the Telluride Trail and See Forever – which could at least theoretically all-but-destroy the ski area if he were to win. He is looking into San Miguel County’s High Country Zoning, which prohibits many development activities in the high country, except within the ski area boundaries, which is not included in the zone district. I’m no lawyer, but Chapman could find a sympathetic hearing in court if he gets that far and argues that the ski company was singled out for special treatment when the zone district was created. Why else would he be researching how the zone district was created? We may be hearing a lot about “spot zoning” and “takings.”
And so, suddenly, an individual with an axe to grind about private property rights, a dyed-in-the-wool conservative, has inserted himself into a central debate about the future of Telluride, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal community. It’s the sanctity of private property rights as foundational principle versus defending the public interest, which is also a principle; it’s right versus left: this could be the Valley Floor debate all over again, except this time around there will be no relatively easy out by way of simply condemning Chapman’s land. As with the Valley Floor debate, Chapman will have an advantage in that we on the public-interest side of the debate will disagree over what is best for the community and environment (lift-served skiing or not?), will likely disagree over what strategy to pursue to blunt Chapman (call his bluff? negotiate?) and won’t agree as to where we can afford to compromise, either (one lift, or five?).
Plus there’s the ski company at the middle of this conundrum, not to mention the U.S. Forest Service. With so much at stake for so many, it’s difficult to imagine a way out of this that is anything other than very messy.
Yes, Mr. Chapman has us right where he wants us. We may protest loudly and hope he’s bluffing, thinking wishfully that he is firing blanks and will be defeated at every turn. Nobody likes the idea of paying ransom, but buying Chapman out may prove to be the cheapest alternative.