Since the Gold Hill Development Company purchased three patented mining claims more than two years ago in the Bear Creek basin, GHDC principals Ron Curry and Tom Chapman claimed that portions of a popular summer hiking trail – the Wasatch Trail – is closed to the public where it crosses GHDC property. The two have paid for ads in local news publications threatening action against those who trespass and have even threatened to post armed guards during the summer months to keep hikers off GHDC lands.
“Our position has been constant; there is no easement for the public to cross our lands in place,” Chapman said last August.
Meanwhile, other members of the Telluride community, including the Telluride Mountain Club, have consistently claimed that the trails in Bear Creek are open for public use.
“Tom Chapman has been getting the perception out there that the trail is closed,” TMC President Tor Anderson countered during that same time period. He said the Wasatch Trail has been a federally recognized trail for decades. “We are urging people to get out and enjoy their public land. Respect private property rights, but enjoy public lands. The trail is open.”
For locals and visitors alike, the past two summers have been somewhat confusing. Can hikers happily use the Wasatch loop and enjoy the San Juan Mountain high country in peace? Or will they find an armed guard waiting in the wildflowers? Does GHDC have a right to close the trail? What about private property rights?
Even though both sides made their opinion public, the question remained: Is the Wasatch Trail open to the public or not?
An answer to that question, at least for summer use of the trail (backcountry skiing in Bear Creek is an entirely different matter) was made public last week when the San Miguel County Commissioners sent a letter to Chapman and Curry to “immediately cease all efforts to prohibit the public use of the Wasatch Trail and East Fork Trail and remove all obstructions and ‘No Trespassing’ signs.”
San Miguel County’s legal staff concluded that the Wasatch and East Fork trails have remained public trails for more than a hundred years and they remain, to this day, open to the public. County staff based its finding on documents found in a moldy volume of Ouray County Commissioner minutes recorded back in 1879 – four years before San Miguel County was carved out of a portion of Ouray County.
The Need for Trails During Mining Boom
In the fall of 2010, and in the midst of public questioning as to whether or not the Wasatch Trail was legally open to the public, the San Miguel County Commissioners directed county attorney Steve Zwick and assistant attorney Becky King to begin researching what the county’s position should be with regard to trails that cross private mining claims.
“We began researching hiking access and what kind of legal documentation that would indicate the extent of public use in Bear Creek,” Zwick said on Monday. “We weren’t focused on backcountry skiing access, which is a whole separate issue.”
King took the reins leading the research in 2011 and began tediously searching San Miguel County Commissioner minutes all the way back to 1883 when the county was first designated. Not knowing exactly what she was looking for, King combed volumes of minutes searching for any sort of reference to the trails in upper Bear Creek.
King also knew that San Miguel County had been carved out of a portion of Ouray County in 1883. Five years prior to that, Ouray County had been carved out of San Juan County. Knowing that there were five years of Ouray County Commissioner minutes that could have some sort of bearing on the trails in Bear Creek, King made the trek to Ouray to search those records.
“The minutes were in an old book and easy to get to but there was a flood at some point in the Ouray County vault so I ended up digging though old moldy stuff with masks and gloves,” King said. “At first, I was not able to find anything helpful.”
That was until she found the minutes of a meeting of May 30, 1879, when the commissioners were petitioned by citizens to not only make the trails in Bear Creek public but to appropriate $100 for the building and maintenances of those trails.
“I was really excited,” she said. “The research, at times, got a little overbearing and I wasn’t expecting to find this, much less to see that the whole trail system the commissioners were laying out at the time was done very matter-of-factly and methodically and it’s very clear in the minutes.”
Reading the minutes, King learned that Bear Creek saw an impressive uptick in mining claims in the time period between 1877 and 1878.
“It was interesting to see the pattern on how the region developed,” she said. “People started staking claims in 1877 and by the fall of 1878, there wasn’t a square inch of land available in the area.”
It was that boom in mining claims that led to the designation of public trails in 1879.
“The government was responding to all that mining activity,” Zwick said. “They were responding to a petition they received from the public. We don’t have the petition itself but there was whole process by which the board of county commissioners approved the petition to recognize the particular alignment of the trail or roads. They were responding to the interested land owners in the area to have the county declare public trails.”
Thanks to those minutes, the San Miguel County Commissioners were able to declare more than a hundred years later that those trails were intended for public use and they are still intended for public use today.
“I was really pleased with her research,” Zwick said. “Becky spent many months searching for this type of document and had a difficult time finding formal commissioner actions regarding the establishment of these trails. This document didn’t show up in San Miguel County because Ouray County had already accomplished the trail system in the mining areas. This was something that Becky was able to uncover the last couple of months.”
‘We Will See How This Whole Situation Evolves’
With documentation in hand, the commissioners approved a letter directing Chapman and Curry to cease all activities in keeping the public off of the Wasatch and East Fork trails in Bear Creek. Furthermore, they stated in their letter that the “GHDC lacks any legal or factual basis to assert that these trails are not public where they cross private property.”
The letter also stated the county has compiled “substantial” evidence proving that the entire length of both trails “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.
Since the letter was made public last week, Chapman has offered no comment, as his legal counsel is reviewing the finding.
Anderson said on 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.”
Zwick echoed Anderson’s comment.
“How we go forward now depends on the type of response [GHDC] wants to take,” he said. “We will see how this whole situation evolves.”
April 4, 2012 Letter From San Miguel Board of County Commissioners to the Gold Hill Development Company
Dear Mr. Chapman and Mr. Curry,
Over the course of the past year San Miguel County has conducted extensive research on the status of the Wasatch and East Fork Trails in Bear Creek Basin. The Wasatch Trail begins at the trailhead on Bear Creek Road not far below Bear Creek Falls and terminates in Bridal Veil Basin. The East Fork Trail begins where Bear Creek splits into two forks and follows the East Fork of Bear Creek for approximately one mile until it reconnects with the Wasatch Trail. Based on this research, the County has determined that these are public trails for their entire length, including where they cross private property.
Gold Hill Development Company has contested the right of the public to cross its private property on the Wasatch and East Fork Trails. To this end, GHDC has taken measures to block or obstruct public passage with fences, signs and armed guards. The County’s investigation of the legal status of these historic trails strongly indicates that GHDC lacks any legal or factual basis to assert that the trails are not public where they cross private property.
As part of a concerted effort to create a network of public trails, the Ouray County Board of Commissioners formally declared certain trails in Bear Creek Basin “County Trails” in 1879. San Miguel County was carved out of Ouray County in 1883. The newly established County Trails in Bear Creek already existed on the grounds, and Ouray County appropriated funds for maintenance at the same time they declared the County Trails. According to our research, except for about ¾ mi. highlighted on the attached Trail Map, 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.
The County’s position is amply supported by the following documents:
• Minutes of the May 30, 1879 Ouray County Board of County Commissioners meeting.
• Diagram of the First Guide Meridian West of the New Mexico Meridian through Township Nos. 41, 42 and 43 North, Dated Nov. 5, 1881.
• Survey of Township No. 42 North, Range No. 8 West of the New Mexico Principal Meridian, dated Jan. 22, 1883.
• Survey of Township No. 42 North, Range No. 9 West of the New Mexico Principal Meridian, Dated Jan. 22, 1883.
• Mineral Survey No. 18082 of the Bimetallic No. 1, Iowa, Bonanza King and Review Lodes, dated Sept. 20, 1906.
The County has also compiled substantial evidence that the entire length of both the Wasatch and the East Fork Trails are public trails by virtue of 20 years of adverse use by the public, as well as the provisions of RS 2477.
In light of the overwhelming evidence in support of the County’s position, GHDC is directed to immediately cease all efforts to prohibit public use of the Wasatch and East Fork Trails and remove all obstructions and “No Trespassing” signs. Thank you in advance for your cooperation.
San Miguel County, Colorado
Board of County Commissioners
Elaine Fischer, Chair.