Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Editor’s note from Lou: I was intrigued a few days ago to receive an email from Thomas Chapman, containing a series of detailed statements that clarify much of what he’s doing with the Bear Creek property near Telluride, Colorado. Chapman’s writing originated as a series of answers to email questions from Gus Jarvis in Telluride, ostensibly for use in a local publicaton. Much to Chapman’s disappointment, his answers were not published within what he considered a reasonable time frame, so he proceeded to send his writing around to try and communicate his position. Eventually, he sent me an unsolicited email. I liked his unfiltered take and thought our readers would as well (whether they agreed with it or not). So, I worked with Tom to edit and re-write this into a form that works for an albeit lengthy but most certainly timely blog post, and he approved for publication today so here goes! PLEASE NOTE: Now that Chapman is published here, we may not like his approach to land sales and development and all of you have a perfect right to be critical, but let’s keep the name calling and personal attacks down to the minimum, and instead show we’re the reasonable people we know we are. Indeed, if backcountry skiers are EVER going to legally have full access to Bear Creek again, someone is going to have to work with Chapman and associated land owners to work out a deal of some sort, so we might as well start right here now with the type of conversation that can lead to resolution, rather than rancor. Also, please know the opinions expressed below are those of author Thomas Chapman, and in no way are intended to reflect the opinions of myself or WildSnow.com.
Q: Thomas, how did your purchase of the Bear Creek property come about?
A: Lou, prior owner Dr. George Greenberg contacted me in 2002 and asked if I would help him sell his Bear Creek claims. I listed the properties for sale at $180,000.00. There’s about 120 acres of land in this group, including about 40 acres of full surface and mineral rights, and about 80 acres of mineral rights only claims. In the summer of 2002, I took out a full back page ad in the local Telluride newspaper advertising all of Dr. Greenberg’s lands for $180,000.00. I was not successful in selling this property for Greenberg during the period of my listing. The Forest Service would not buy the land for more than the Forest Service appraisal of $130,000.00. Dr. Greenberg would not come down on his price. And Telluride didn’t care, evidently, as no one in Telluride expressed any interest whatsoever in purchasing the lands, even though they could be purchased for about what a garage would cost to build in Telluride. So I walked away — for seven years.
In those ensuing seven years, Dr. Greenberg would call me occasionally to give me an update on his efforts to sell or trade his lands. He was working without a broker during those years, trying to sell his lands to either the Forest Service or to any person or organization in Telluride that would have liked to purchase them, including the Bear Creek Preserve folks.
In October of 2009 Dr. Greenberg called me to say that he had received a request from Telluride Ski & Golf for permission to travel over his lands for purpose of their snow avalanche study. He denied their request. They entered anyway. Dr. Greenberg made it clear that he did not want people to ski across his lands. They skied over his lands anyway — at the rate of around 200 per day, or 6,000 per month (Town of Telluride’s count, not ours). Once again, Dr. Greenberg asked me if I might have a buyer that would purchase his lands as he did not want to deal with all the issues. He simply was at a loss on how to deal with a huge ski corporation and a skiing culture that didn’t seem to care about his rights — only theirs.
I said yes, I had a party looking for an investment in Colorado and I would see if they might have an interest in these incredibly beautiful lands in Bear Creek. Dr. Greenberg’s asking price was now $300,000.00. I sold it for $246,000.00 in March of 2010 and the buyers were absolutely delighted to own this exquisite property. I was delighted to finally be able to sell it for Dr. Greenberg, who was hung out to dry, in my opinion, by nearly every person and preservation group in the Telluride region for seven years. It certainly looked like a situation of why buy, when you can trespass for free, against a man who could not defend himself.
I did not buy the claims. They were purchased by the Gold Hill Development Company, in which I hold a 20% principal interest. If you would like to ask questions of the majority partner, you may do so by contacting him. He may or may not answer them. His name is Ron Curry, and he’s the in-residence chef and manager at the stunning Casa Barranca within Black Canyon National Park, the only luxury home inside a national park in America. www.blackcanyoncasa.com Phone: 916-765-9045
(Photo removed by request of photographer.)
Q: Thomas, please explain what you do in the business of real estate and associated land exchanges?
A: I have been a Colorado real estate broker for 38 consecutive years. I have done exactly one land exchange in that period of time. That was the Telluride/West Elk Wilderness land exchange in 1994. In those 38 years, I have held small minority ownership interests in exactly four real estate investments. Telluride brokers might do that many in a year. In dozens of other real estate transactions — I was the seller’s real estate broker working at commission rates of 6% or less.
When I represent a property owner as a broker, I do exactly the same thing every broker in Telluride does. That is, I make every effort to sell my client’s property for the highest possible price.
In those four transactions (over 38 years) in which I have held a principal interest, my objective was, and is, to sell for more than we paid and make a profit — which would be exactly the same motive of every other investor in Telluride today, or website entrepreneur such as yourself for that matter.
I consider myself a landowner advocate, particularly in the specialty area of private lands entrapped by federal legislation, usually federal wilderness areas, but national parks as well. The entrapped private lands have immediate compromised values, in that the typical landowner does not have the money resources to battle the gargantuan federal government, state government, and right on down to the county level where county commissioners pass regulations that limit the use of these lands due to their “special designation” or “elevation,” or whatever ostensible reason they believe exists for protecting the public from “adverse” use by a private landowner. The resulting valuation process is compromised due to restricted use and restricted access.
So, if I were to try to assess what I see as my role in this process, it would be first and foremost to represent the interest of compromised landowners, to level the playing field, to see that they have every opportunity to sell their lands for the highest possible price, just as would be the case for the landowner back in town. In this sense, my goal would be to have a positive impact on the reasoning process at the political level, say at Congresswoman Diana DeGette’s level, where she is trying to introduce legislation that would expand and create new wilderness areas in Western Colorado and Eastern Utah. I would like to have her, her staff, her fellow Congressmen and Senators, and all proponents of wilderness designation, be aware of the conflicted circumstances that arise when decisions are made for pure political expediency. There is a better way of accomplishing the same goal, and it’s called sitting down at the “kitchen table” with proposed inholders, or in this case, the Bear Creek landowners. That is the correct way to resolve the issue, the way our founding fathers would have endorsed.
Nearly every person in America, every environmentalist, every non-profit organization, and most of the people in Telluride, buy real estate of some kind with the thought of selling it for more than they paid for it. This opportunity should not be denied a landowner who happens to be entrapped within a wilderness area or be located within Bear Creek.
Therefore, making a profit for my client is one of my goals. Another would be to serve as a “check” against the over-zealous portion of the environmental community and the sycophant politicians that pander to them for political gain.
Q: How do you pick property to get involved in for these various land exchanges or other types of deals?
A: Lou, your plural use of “land exchanges” is incorrect. It needs to be changed to the singular “land exchange”. What I would look for when purchasing a property would be the same thing that every investor in Telluride looks for — something that has the possibility of being worth more tomorrow than it is worth today.
Q:When did you begin your real estate career? Are you a success?
A: I started 38 years ago, at the age of 22, upon graduating from the University of Colorado. In that 38 year period of time, I have never had a complaint filed against me, or my company, on any matter, with the Colorado Division of Real Estate. Success can be measured in many ways, and therefore there is no absolute answer to your question.
Q: What are your plans for your property in Bear Creek?
A: Gold Hill Development Corporation intends to:
1. Reopen the multiple existing gold and silver mines on the various claims, utilizing the historic and still existing Gold Hill Road to remove ore to processing plants, subject to a pending minerals analysis showing this option to be economically viable.
2. Construct a 1000 square foot European-style rock chalet on the westerly portion of the Little Bessie parcel, just below below Gold Hill Ridge, just above lift 15, just over the ridge from the Telski “chute” runs, in the area known locally as the “Delta Bowl.”
3. Develop “eco-tourism” facilities on the Modena Parcel (the large flat area just below San Joaquin Ridge and just above the “Wedding Chutes”). Those facilities would consist of yurt-style structures, in the concept of a spa resort. During winter we would utilize the “balloon-igloo construction technique,” whereby you create living space in the void created by large balloon-like structures covered with snow and ice.
4. We intend to fence the property for maximum privacy in summer months.
5. We intend to close our lands to all public travel, both summer and winter months and will take whatever measures are necessary to stop the trespass skiing occurring on GHDC lands via the upper Gold Hill backcountry release gates, which have now been closed. Our lands have been posted every 200 feet. The liability associated with public skiing over our private lands is unacceptable. This should be obvious, with Bear Creek Off-Piste ski run names like “Graveyard” and “Deep & Dangerous”, both of which are on the GHDC Little Bessie parcel.
Lou, as I’m sure you know as a journalist covering backcountry skiing here on WildSnow.com, there have been several deaths in Bear Creek in the last 15 years. The snow is not controlled in this area. It’s not safe to ski in this area without avalanche control. We intend to terminate skiing over GHDC private lands and we asked the Forest Service many months ago to close the Gold Hill release gates and to rescind all current guide permits that would result in trespass over Bear Creek private lands. We appreciate the fact that the Forest Service has done so and we appreciate Dave Riley’s gracious decision to vacate Telski’s guide permit and his statement that Telski will enforce the rope closure by pulling passes for two years.
We are not the only Bear Creek landowner who has taken this position. The West family (Nellie/Laura parcels) made the same request of the Forest Service for the same reasons. They have owned their lands for over four generations There is absolutely no way that a skier who exits the two upper Gold Hill release gates, above Lift 15, can descend down to Telluride without crossing the GHDC lands or the West family lands, or both. Information to the contrary is being wrongly disseminated by the editor of The Planet newspaper, the San Miguel Assessor, the San Miguel County GIS office, and enabled by a County Surveyor ducking his responsibility to clear up the issue. The GHDC lands haven’t moved an inch since 1892 — and in 118 years there has never been a “gap,” as this is being called. The confusion is purposeful and regrettable. All of these private lands were surveyed by longtime professional registered surveyor Bob Larson of Ouray, Colorado. I enclose by attachment a digital copy of the registered GHDC lands survey, the West family Nellie/Laura survey, the Gold Hill Road survey, and the scurrilous mis-informing map put out by the San Miguel County GIS office.
6. We intend to reopen vehicular access along the historic Gold Hill Road for the entire 4 1/2 mile length of the road, starting at the mine dump on the Little Bessie parcel in Upper Bear Creek Basin all the way back to town, crossing the bridge at the lower Gondola station and then crossing to the first public street. This road is clearly shown on the Drake Mountain Maps 2002 MAP OF THE MOUNTAINS OF TELLURIDE. We had the entire road surveyed this summer, including those portions that travel through the six Telski private parcels on Gold Hill Ridge and their new Dandy parcel in West Bear Creek. We are initiating legal proceedings in federal court against two parties for the purpose of quieting title along the historic Gold Hill Road, most of which, as you may know, is a well-maintained boulevard utilized by Telluride Ski & Golf year-round. The public would know this road right-of-way as the “See Forever Run.”
The actions will be against:
— As against the Forest Service, in a claim of DOI Easement (known as a Department of Interior Easement). The Little Bessie Parcel was patented in 1892, with all rights of ingress and egress appurtenant thereto along the then existing Gold Hill Road, fully 13 years before the 1905 Uncompahgre National Forest reservation. The right of ingress and egress for the Little Bessie parcel along the Gold Hill Road predates Forest Service rights in and to the same road right-of-way. As an alternative to this action, GHDC has offered to exchange non-exclusive easements with the Forest Service that would grant GHDC vehicular road access on the 97% of the Gold Hill Road owned by the Forest Service, and in return, GHDC would grant a non-exclusive easement to the Forest Service for public access through those portions of the Wasatch Trail that pass through GHDC lands, for summer use only.
— As against Telluride Ski & Golf and TSG Asset Holdings, in a quiet title action against the six private parcels they hold along Gold Hill Ridge and their one parcel on West Bear Creek, the Dandy. The GHDC Little Bessie Parcel was patented in 1892. All seven of the Telski parcels were patented subsequent to that date, and therefore are “junior” in line of patent. The appurtenants clause found within the Little Bessie patent creates a senior right for ingress and egress over all subsequent patents issued along the road, including all of the subsequent patents issued on parcels now owned by Telluride Ski & Golf and TSG Asset Holdings. All patents now held by Telski are “junior,” and in fact have been “junior” to the senior rights of the Little Bessie for the last 118 years. If GHDC road access rights are affirmed by the court without condition, that would allow snow removal from the road for purpose of accessing say, the Delta Bowl home, in any month of the year, including October through April. As an alternative to this action, if Telski recognizes the GHDC road rights prior to a quiet title suit, GHDC would be willing to negotiate track usage during the months the ski area is open.
Q: Some folks say that your land deals have an element of “extortion” in that you make it known you plan on developing “inholdings” in special places, which in turn helps you sell your property or exchange it for higher value. Is that true?
A: There will always be those who will inevitably suffer misconceptions for lack of investing sufficient time in investigating the facts.
For those who are interested in a straight-up honest debate on the issues, I would simply say that they must first properly inform themselves and not rely exclusively upon the unvalidated assertions of others who may be committed to a questionable agenda. In the case of Bear Creek, the private lands were mining gold and silver many decades before there was such a thing as recreational skiing. Patented mining claims are based on first in time first in right. Colorado water law is based on first in time first in right. The respectful user of the backcountry understands this and respects private property, just as he or she would respect someone else’s private water rights.
I would also tell them not to vote for pandering politicians, who for political expediency, create wilderness inholdings to begin with. The genesis of the problem with regards to designated wilderness areas, is the environmental advocate who convinces a glad-handing politician to create an inholding in the first place.
But once they are created, the entrapped landowner does not lose his constitutional right of reasonable use and enjoyment of his or her lands, and they certainly do not lose the right to sell their lands for the highest possible price. To believe otherwise, is to degrade the core values that most Americans hold — one of which is respect for private property rights and another the right to equal and fair treatment with regards to real estate ownership.
Q: What would you tell people, especially skiers, who are losing public access to Bear Creek due to your not allowing the public to cross your land?
A: First, I would ask them to consider the fact that there are other owners in Bear Creek, one of which, the West family, has made it clear that they do not want the public to trespass on their lands.
In my opinion, public access has never existed in Bear Creek, not since the 1880’s with the patent of numerous private lands that cross the width and breadth of Bear Creek. From that date forward, public access up Bear Creek was always subject to permission to cross private lands.
The process of patenting lands was a process of creating private property rights. Those rights are not relinquished by subsequent unlawful behavior. Everyone understands that you ask permission to hunt pheasants on someone’s ranch by first asking permission to do so, unless you are willing to commit an unlawful act.
You will notice in Telluride that you have to have permission to do a lot of things. For example, if you want to park on the streets, you are required to buy a parking stub. If you don’t, the rules say the police department can give you a ticket or impound your car. If there are no rules, and if people are not willing to respect the next person’s property rights (or the right of the town to create parking rules), then we have anarchy.
The correct way to handle this issue, is the way the Hardrock Hundred folks handled it this summer. They asked permission of GHDC to cross the private lands. And permission was granted. So in that regard, if a skier wants to pass through this winter, he will have to show how he will mitigate the liability issue from accidental death or injury, which are the two over-riding factors in the decision to not allow skiing over the private lands, most of which is treacherous skiing as you know. No one has yet to explain why it is acceptable to transfer very real injury and death liability over and unto the several Bear Creek landowners, just so Telski can pocket another $98.00 lift ticket or the various guides collect on a $600.00 guide ticket.
Furthermore, I recall seeing one of your commenters here on WildSnow write that liability coverage for land such as ours was a simple matter of extending homeowner’s insurance coverage. Let me just say that is not always so, and for various reasons is not so in our case.
Q: Legal Wilderness is of course a big issue for us here in Colorado, what are your feelings about it?
A: If done correctly, I think the creation of wilderness areas and the preservation of open space is a wonderful thing. I fully support our existing wilderness areas. I could support new wilderness proposals if they do not entrap private lands and take into consideration the multiple use aspects of our public lands.
I have a number of good friends who are liberal environmentalists. I have participated in private property/land exchange issues working against billionaire capitalists. What I actually do and the perception of what I do is often confusing to people. But I operate off of former UCLA Coach Wooden’s admonition that a person should be more concerned about their character than their reputation, for your character is who you truly are, and your reputation is merely what someone thinks you are.
Thomas Chapman Dec. 13, 2010
Please see our previous blog post about backcountry skiing access to Bear Creek being blocked.