While appalled at developer Tom Chapman’s tactics, I also get a chuckle out of what he’s doing. Chapman is notorious for buying Colorado land located in backcountry areas perceived to be development free, then developing or threatening to develop his land. Result is Chapman ends up making money. Government entities buy or land swap him out, or he ends up with developed property in unique locations (such as a luxury home within Black Canyon National Park).
Chapman’s latest action is to buy parcels in backcountry skiing terrain that’s accessed from Telluride resort in Colorado, then announce the property closed under Colorado trespass law. (Details here — and here)
I laugh because Chapman brings out the reality of important land issues we have here in the west; issues that are all to frequently ignored. Prime example: It is amazing how much private land actually exists in areas you might think are 100% National Forest and even legal Wilderness. You might be crossing such private land every time you hunt, fish, backcountry ski or whatever — and not even know it. Then along comes an owner who sticks up some no trespassing signs. Suddenly you find out that the the land you thought was public, is, well, just like the land under your house. Only you’re not the owner.
Like most backcountry users I’m deeply concerned about what Chapman is doing in Telluride. But my reaction is not the knee-jerk “oh-my-god what a greedy so-and-so.” Instead, my take is that Chapman brings up an incredibly important political issue out there for us backcountry recreators, that of access. I’m concerned because over the years I see our access eroded by all manner of things (private land, road closures, to name a few). Yet at the same time, the pop culture attitude is we need more “preservation,” (e.g., more legal Wilderness with actually less access) and vastly more energy goes towards that end.
Making sure our backcountry isn’t destroyed is a good thing (provided preservation is done with reason rather than fanaticism). But reality is most of our Colorado backcountry is in fine shape. Indeed, It will still be in fine shape with even more cabins and houses on inholdings.
Thus, in my opinion what we should be devoting more energy towards is making sure we can access said backcountry. In trying to close off his Telluride land, Chapman makes it obvious how important this is.
Solutions to the issue of private land blocking public access are not easy, as the concept of private property is one of the strongest threads in the fabric of modern civilization.
Altruism helps. One of our family dreams is to own a backcountry cabin and we’re constantly working on making that happen — but we’d never in a million years think of restricting access to property in order to profit from it. Many backcountry property owners (if not the majority) feel the same way. But money talks and the Chapmans of the world are all too common.
Ironically, one thing that drives the “Chapman syndrome” is entities such as the Trust for Public Lands and the Forest Service working out deals that profit the private land owner. In turn, other land owners look at the numbers, and think, “hey, I wonder how much I can get for my land?” If you look at the records for the last couple of decades, you’ll see Chapman isn’t the only one who’s been playing this game. He’s just one of the most blatant.
Perhaps what we ultimately need is a two pronged solution. First, more limits on the scope and size of backcountry development so even if land does get built on, resulting structures are more fitting for the backcountry environment. Second, what if private land in backcountry areas had more public “freedom to roam” than what is normally associated with land in the United States?
The former (limited scope and size) is already being done through zoning in many areas. But the latter (increased public freedom to roam) is as far from reality as a third eye popping out on my forehead this minute. So, any other solutions?
For starters, it always interests me that public entities such as county governments don’t work more with tools such as prescriptive easements and condemnation to solve Chapman-esque problems. Anyone know why we don’t pursue such solutions more often, rather than enriching private land owners who hold us hostage?
As always, your comments are gold.