As the West's economy shifts from traditional extractive industries to real estate and recreation, the region's largest landowner is proving to be a big-time sucker.
For decades the Forest Service has lost
money on timber sales, and has leased valuable oil and gas reserves
virtually for free. So it's no surprise that the agency is equally
irresponsible in the world of real estate.
it is troubling to see the Forest Service cave in to a speculator
as blatant as Colorado developer Tom Chapman. On April 15, Forest
Service Chief Jack Ward Thomas granted final approval of a land
trade that would dupe the federal taxpayers and make Chapman a
millionaire. In doing so, the agency looked away from possible
illegal activity by Chapman and refused to participate in a Justice
officials also ignored an angry public in western Colorado, and,
most surprisingly, spurned an offer by Sen. Ben Nighthorse
Campbell, D-Colo., to take Chapman to the mat.
Chapman's strategy is by now well documented. He purchases private
land within or adjacent to major national resources; then he
threatens to develop it unless the federal government promises to
buy him out at vastly inflated prices. It worked before in the
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument, and Chapman used
the same gambit briefly in the Bureau of Land Management's Gunnison
Gorge recreation area.
Then, in 1989, Chapman
and an investor named Bob Mine-rich picked up a 240-acre inholding
in the West Elk Wilderness near Paonia, Colo., for $240,000, or
$1,000 an acre. Chapman spent two years threatening to build a
cabin and sue for road access into the wilderness unless the Forest
Service bought them out for $5,500 an acre.
agency held firm and Minerich balked at further action. Chapman
found a couple of other investors and bought the land himself as
the principal owner of the West Elk Development Corp. Chapman says
he paid $960,000 - or $4,000 an acre - but the price included only
$300,000 in cash and a $660,000 loan from Minerich.
Soon after, Chapman and his new partners
started flying in logs for a $1 million cabin in the heart of the
wilderness. That outraged everyone, from diehard backpackers to the
head of the local Republican Party, and prompted formal protests
from then Sen. Tim Wirth and Campbell, then a congressman.
But instead of protecting its turf, the Forest
Service collapsed. Officials from the agency's Denver and
Washington offices - who a year earlier declined to even meet with
Chapman - suddenly agreed to a land exchange and offered him 105
acres adjacent to the Telluride Ski Area. The agency's appraisers
drafted a new study that valued both parcels at $640,000.
While the Forest Service insists the land trade
is of equal value, similar parcels in Telluride are selling for $2
million to $3 million. Inexplicably, the Forest Service has not
only stuck with the deal; it continues to defend it in the face of
In western Colorado,
local governments, the San Miguel County Board of Realtors and
environmental groups have appealed the Forest Service proposal. The
appellants provided the agency with a hefty portfolio showing the
Telluride parcel is worth several million dollars. The Forest
Service rejected their case.
Sen. Campbell vowed
to introduce legislation in Congress to condemn Chapman's
inholdings if the Forest Service would deny the land trade. The
agency never responded.
Finally, a former
business partner of Chapman's came foward to testify that not only
was the Forest Service set up from the begining, but that Chapman
himself estimates the value of the Telluride lands at almost four
times the official Forest Service appraisal. That was enough to
trigger an inquiry by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Denver (HCN,
4/18/94). But again, the Forest Service declined to investigate or
even cooperate with the Department of Justice. Sources there say
that without a plaintiff, the case stands little chance.
It's a slim reed, but those who object to
Chapman's manipulation of a federal agency now have only the
Congress to turn to. It has the power to condemn Chapman's private
inholding in the West Elk Wilderness. Doing so would be a timely
warning to all wilderness profiteers. n
Steve Hinchman is a staff
reporter for High Country News.