Some people think controversial developer Tom Chapman may have made a costly mistake. The Colorado native recently acquired two patented mining claims within the Spanish Peaks wilderness study area in southwestern Colorado, but his critics say the price he paid for 30 acres was high and the potential for mining or other development low.

"This is some of the most useless real estate around," says Mark Pearson, vice president of the Wilderness Land Trust, a Colorado nonprofit organization that acquires private holdings inside public lands. Pearson says he thinks the claims are worth about $15,000 - Chapman paid $101,000 - and would be easy to exclude if Congress designated the area wilderness.

Access to the Bull's Eye and Whale claims is also anything but easy. "It's not even a given that he can build a road," says Forest Service staffer David Crumley. The claims lie on unstable, almost vertical terrain and "(Chapman) may have a very expensive pile of rocks surrounded by a wilderness area," adds Pearson.

Chapman has become well known for buying private holdings surrounded by public land, then threatening to develop unless bought out at an inflated price.

Environmentalists in Eagle County, Colo., hope that Chapman may have miscalculated there as well. He was recently involved with the purchase of a 26.8-acre gold mine in the Holy Cross Wilderness, near Vail. Now he faces the county's backcountry zoning rules, which were created to restrict private development.

* Jamie Murray