‘Wild West capitalism’ versus wilderness

Controversial Colorado business model tested in Telluride

View of the hike to Bear Creek from Telluride Ski Resort
Photo by Chelsea Galleri

Accusations fly around Telluride like the wind whipping the faded prayer flags, music posters and tourists’ fur coats. “Tom Chapman is a douchebag,” announces a bumper sticker spotted along the streets of jubilantly colored houses. Most locals spit out a bitter laugh at first mention of his proposed helicopter-accessed resort in Bear Creek Basin, a backcountry area accessed from Telluride Ski Resort. The bumper sticker says it best, they agree.

Thomas Chapman is a Colorado real estate developer who has been called “the most hated man on the Western Slope” by a Telluride realtor quoted in Powder magazine. He’s known for selling properties surrounded by wilderness after threatening to build mansions or subdivisions on them.

In the late 1990s, he purchased 18 parcels in Colorado wilderness for one of his companies, according to The Wall Street Journal. Those 18 don’t even include Chapman’s most infamous land deals, in places like Gunnison National Park and West Elk Wilderness.

In 2010, he and a business partner in the Gold Hill Development Company, Ron Curry, purchased about 100 acres of mining claims in Bear Creek and then announced it would be developed. But Telluride locals are skeptical about those latest development plans. “It’s actually pretty funny, to see what outrageous plan he comes up with next,” says part-time ski instructor and Telluride resident Zach Sands. Chapman’s first declared intentions for Bear Creek included gold mines and futuristic “balloon-igloo construction.”

In a press release, he threatened that armed gunmen would be patrolling his land adjacent to Telluride in case outdoor recreationists approached. But Chapman’s past revelations have made some locals more skeptical. When the government didn’t want the property he was selling in Gunnison National Park’s Black Canyon in 1984, media accounts claim a bulldozer was used to spew up extra dirt, making it appear that condo construction had begun. Environmentalists freaked. The government wound up buying the property for $2.1 million in 1987, says Connie Rudd, superintendent for the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park.

“You’ve got a bulldozer, you know it will rile people up, you make some dust. It’s not rocket science,” says Lou Dawson, who runs the backcountry blog Wildsnow.com.

Name-calling reached a new high in 2010 when Chapman persuaded the Forest Service to close Bear Creek access by complaining about liability that avalanche victims could pose for landowners.

“I’d like to punch him,” professional backcountry ski guide Andy Abner jokes while riding Telluride’s Gold Hill chairlift.

“He’s trying to take away people’s God-given right to open space, trying to pull this Wild West shit,” says Charlie Higginbotham, a Durango resident who has been backcountry skiing in Bear Creek for nearly 20 years.

“Of course people are angry,” chuckles Leftover Salmon guitarist and longtime Colorado legend Vince Herman, who’s aware of Chapman’s public past. “That’s why it works,” he says while in Telluride for two sold-out performances at the historic Sheridan Opera House. But in January, Chapman offered full access back to backcountry skiers — many of whom had never stopped skiing there, anyway — if they register on his website, print and sign his waiver, and carry it while skiing.

“People shouldn’t need a waiver to use the Wasatch Trail,” says Tor Andersen, president of the Telluride Mountain Club, who has mapped ski routes in Bear Creek that use the federally recognized trail with- out crossing private lands. Signing Chapman’s waiver could weaken the legal case for “prescriptive access” to the Wasatch Trail based on decades who of public use, he says. Chapman has filed suits against the Forest Service and Telski over access, and a court new date is set for this summer, so some say the waiver is a calculated move.

Critics of Chapman’s business practices range from ABC News to the American Land Rights Association, which normally advocates for landowners like Chapman.

Locals allege that Chapman bought the property immediately after Telski received a permit for guided skiing in Bear Creek.

“I had heard that Telski was considering a move into Bear Creek,” Chapman’s GHDC partner Curry said via email from Israel this week, “so I called USFS District Ranger [Judy] Schutza in January of 2010 … GHDC closed on the purchase on March 18, 2010. On March 19, 2010, Ranger Schutza announced the issuance of a permit to Telski for guided skiing in Bear Creek.”

In May 2010, Chapman sent the USFS a letter arguing that Telski would need to own GHDC’s land before their boundary expansion or guided skiing could be possible. Telski’s guided skiing route did blatantly cross their private property, says Dawson.

“I thought that was unbelievable,” says Dawson, who acknowledges he has worked as a consultant for Curry in the past. “They may have been reacting to that, or trying to leverage it, so that Telski would buy the property from them.”

“As to intimations that my intention is to ultimately sell the land for more than GHDC paid for it,” Curry says, “this is true.” He does not specify an intended buyer, but many locals speculate that Telski is part of the plan.“There are two prior instances where Telski bought out landowners who blocked access or built there,” says Andrew Dolese, a longtime local realtor who has served on the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission. When a private European-style hut was built on a mining claim blocking Gold Hill access, Telski bought it. Then a five-story home was built into the rock directly above Temptation Chute, and Telski bought that, too, Dolese says.

Telski isn’t the only Telluride entity that purchases land. The town also buys property, which makes them potential suitors to Chapman, to buy property to stop development such as that on Bear Creek.

Skiers walk from the Revelation Bowl chairlift to the Bear Creek backcountry. | Photo by Cecelia Gilboy

“We rule the roost as a people,” says Eliza Gavin, who owns renowned local restaurant 221 South Oak. “We’re historically oriented. And Bear Creek is part of our resort. Developing it is like trying to erect a hotel inside the Empire State Building. It’s unrealistic.”

Anderson agrees the proposed resort is highly unlikely.

“Bear Creek is one of the most avalanche-prone areas in Colorado. Telluride Ski Area would have a hell of a time managing this area, even with all their personnel.” Avalanche control is a key part of Chapman’s proposal.

“It is not safe to ski in this area without avalanche control,” Chapman told Telluride Magazine. “There have been several deaths in Bear Creek in the last 15 years.”

At the top of the Gold Hill lift, Higginbotham and Abner double-check their beacons before parting with friends to take on Tempter, their second Bear Creek run of the day. “If I don’t call you in an hour,” Abner tells a friend, “worry.”

Later, over $3 fish tacos at local favorite Floradora Saloon, Higginbotham recounts the hair-raising “moving snow” that accompanied them down Bear Creek, especially in an area known as Fingers. “Bear Creek is definitely very serious avalanche terrain,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). “Managing avalanches in that area is not a trivial thing. It depends how much money you want to spend.” It requires helicopters and explosives and personnel trained to use both in order to properly mitigate avalanche danger in an area like Bear Creek.

“Avalanche control there would work only with no regard for making any money,” Anderson says. “Proposing this type of ski area in this location shows how little Chapman knows about the business and the science of avalanche control.”

Just as it would require permits and helicopters for Chapman to cleanse the area of its avalanche danger, Helitrax also has to have permits to conduct its business.

“You need a permit,” Helitrax Director Joe Shults says. “it’s federal land.”

GHDC would need one, too: Curry says they plan to lease at least one helicopter to whisk skiers to and from the sole avalanche-free zone in upper Bear Creek. Helitrax already has a USFS permit to land in upper Bear Creek, Shults says.

“I don’t think that [overlapping permit] situation currently exists in the lower 48 states,” Shults says.

But the helicopter permit question might not be addressed anytime soon. No proposal for the Bear Creek resort has been submitted to the USFS yet, according to Schutza. The permit process took Silverton Mountain, the last ski area approved in Colorado, almost six years.

“A few weeks ago, we guided Ron Curry through the process so he would know how to submit a proposal,” Schutza says. “He needs to give us a proposal and we’ll decide if it can become an application.”

Curry is in no hurry. “No one I have spoken with at the Forest Service has given me a deadline,” he wrote. “They are aware that I am busy, out of the country.”

So they haven’t taken the first official step, Anderson says, “just created a website to generate panic.”

That website warns in red lettering that “if the ski permit idea is not acceptable … upper Bear Creek becomes a private ski area for the homeowner” of the single-family luxury home they would build instead. Dawson believes cooperation may be best for Telluride.

“It’s better to work with people with resources like that, than to totally road-block,” he says, “because if you road-block, you don’t know what you’re gonna get.” Curry explains his options in his email. “Should our other applications fail to gain traction, we still own the land,” he writes.

“The county is obligated to give us a building permit for at least a 1,000-square-feet permanent dwelling. If someone is interested in acquiring this from us, we are are willing to entertain an offer. We also have the right to have a small mining operation.”

But the main plan is the heli-ski resort, according to GHDC — if it doesn’t hit any major road blocks.

“With regards to just the safety issue alone, all skiers who value the safety of backcountry skiing, and we feel that is nearly everyone, would not have a problem with a minimal charge to make a place safe to ski,” Chapman says.

It turns out many do have a problem with his plan — if they take it seriously, that is.

“The locals know his plan is a scam,” says Andi Moran, an employee at a local ski shop with indoor climbing walls.

Nonchalant Telluridians, convinced Chapman is bluffing, may add a new twist to an old Colorado controversy.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com