Detour is needed from Chapman plan

Tom Chapman has a unique — and distasteful — business model: Find a parcel of property adjacent to or surrounded by spectacular public lands. Threaten to develop the private lands or block access to the public lands. Hope for a federal bailout in the form of a cash buyout or a lucrative land swap.

The Montrose County land speculator has been at it for almost 30 years and it appears he’s at it again. According to news reports over the weekend, Chapman has found a new target — the Bear Creek drainage near Telluride, beloved by backcountry skiers and where Telluride Ski Resort recently began offering guided backcountry ski trips.

The drainage is mostly U.S. Forest Service land, but a company Chapman is a partner in has acquired 103 acres of mining claims in the basin and is threatening to file trespass charges against anyone who crosses his claims. It’s a liability issue, he says.

Yeah, right.

We hope the Forest Service and Telluride Ski Resorts find paths around Chapman’s claims — and there are indications they may be able to do just that — rather than buy Chapman out.

There is nothing illegal in Chapman’s business model. He acquires property or works with landowners to obtain control over lands in critical areas. But since the 1980s, he has used those lands to back federal authorities into corners and force them to meet his demands.

In 1984, Chapman and a property owner rolled a bulldozer onto private lands within the boundaries of what was then the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument (now it’s a national park). The lands had spectacular vistas of the canyon from the North Rim, and the 132 homes Chapman’s group promised to build would have been highly visible to the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the Black Canyon’s South Rim each year.

With the support of Congress, the National Park Service eventually acquired the land for four times its appraised value.

Chapman’s most notorious deal probably occurred in the early 1990s with a piece of private land surrounded by the West Elk Wilderness Area in the Gunnison National Forest. Chapman threatened to build a massive lodge on the property, and even hired a helicopter to fly a few loads of building materials onto the property.

Again with the support of the public and members of Congress, a federal agency capitulated. The Forest Service arranged a land swap with Chapman that, according to one news report, netted Chapman and his partners close to $2 million.

There may be nothing illegal in Chapman’s deals, but there is nothing noble about them, either. He seeks out areas where he knows public support for the lands in question will push federal authorities to act — in his interest.

That’s why we hope Telluride ski officials and the Forest Service can detour around Chapman’s latest acquisition and make his long-used business model a losing proposition.


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