On the offensive: developer Tom Chapman

  • Tom Chapman's hunting lodge with West Elk Wilderness

    U.S. Forest Service photo
  • Tom Chapman on site in 1993

    Steve Hinchman photo

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

There are those who say he's a classic American businessman who's become a fierce defender of private property rights. Critics believe he's a Colorado profiteer who makes millions blackmailing the U.S. Forest Service to buy him out.

One thing is clear: Thomas E. Chapman has a knack for evoking ire.

In 1992, the Austin, Colo., developer began constructing an enormous log building in the West Elk Wilderness outside of Paonia, Colo. (HCN, 7/26/93). His intention, according to critics, was to force the Forest Service into a land exchange. As a helicopter ferried chainsaws and building supplies onto a highly visible ridge inside the wilderness, local citizens and environmentalists expressed outrage. Forest Service officials scrambled to find a way to stop the construction.

And they did. In exchange for his 240-acre inholding, the agency traded Chapman 105 acres of prime federal real estate near the ski resort town of Telluride, Colo. Many Telluride citizens and government officials cried foul when both properties were appraised at $640,000. While the land inside the West Elk Wilderness was surely beautiful, critics said it lacked the location and development potential of booming Telluride. Editorials lambasted Chapman's tactics and appeals were filed in Washington, D.C.

Despite the intense public furor, the deal was eventually done and Chapman sold his newly acquired Telluride land for $4.2 million.

Some four years later, Chapman is back in the spotlight. Apparently angered by a recent ABC television news segment slamming his business practices, Chapman granted a rare interview to the local Montrose Daily Press.

Chapman now takes issue with the accuracy of quotations attributed to him, but their gist was that he thinks land exchanges are not a fair and feasible way of dealing with inholdings and that the $640,000 appraisal accepted by the Forest Service was too low. The Press also reported that Chapman said that although Colorado Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R, publicly criticized the West Elk land exchange deal in 1994, he pushed it through at the last minute.

Sen. Campbell denies the allegation. "The record is clear that Sen. Campbell was never in favor of the Telluride land-swap," said a Washington spokesperson for the senator. "And Mr. Chapman's integrity is very well documented."

Steve Wells of the Norwood Ranger District defended the land trade and said he would not speculate as to what caused Chapman's change of heart. "As far as the Forest Service is concerned," Wells said, "we stand by what we did. It was a good land exchange. It met our needs."

Chapman, who had refused to appear on the TV news show with Campbell, wrote a rebuke to the senator on Dec. 21, and has since distributed some 400 copies of his four-page letter to groups including the Mountain States Legal Foundation, People for the West!, the Western States Coalition and Political Economy Resource Center.

In the letter, he defended the Telluride land appraisal. It had been based on one done by the town of Telluride, he said, and the town had no interest in artificially depressing the value of the land. The basic problem with inholdings, Chapman continued, is the assumption by environmentalists and the "liberal media" that private property surrounded by public land has fewer rights than private property elsewhere.

Chapman also faulted Congress for not providing the money to acquire inholdings. "Is the U.S. Congress like the delinquent father," Chapman asked, "who fathers a child and then fails to pay child support?"

Meanwhile, Chapman's career buying and selling inholdings continues. He and his partners have purchased two mining claims in the Spanish Peaks wilderness study area in southern Colorado, as well as mining claims in the Holy Cross Wilderness in central Colorado.

The writer works for the Telluride Times Journal.