Developer blocks trail to a famous 'fourteener'

  Ambitious hikers eager to scale all of Colorado's 54 "fourteeners" almost had one less peak to cross off their list.

Texas developer Rusty Nichols owns a 300-acre patchwork of mining claims on Wilson Peak, a 14,017-foot-tall mountain in southwestern Colorado whose image adorns calendars, posters and Coors beer cans worldwide. Last July, citing liability concerns, Nichols barred public access across his land and blocked the only non-technical route to the summit.

The controversy followed the Forest Service's rejection of his proposal to exchange 2,200 acres of public land on Wilson Mesa for his 300 acres. Dee Closson of the Norwood Ranger District says the proposed trade simply was not equitable. Nearby property similar to the "grassy aspen plots" Nichols wanted has appraised at $15,000 to $25,000 per acre, she says. Land near Nichols' claims appraised at $6,250 per acre.

Based on those numbers, Nichols would have traded real estate worth less than $2 million for public lands worth at least $33 million.

Now, Nichols has applied to the agency for a road-use permit to mine gold. "I'm just trying to derive some income from these (claims)," he says, "since neither the Forest Service nor anyone else has shown interest in trading."

Meanwhile, Tom Anderson, president of the Telluride Mountain Club, says mountaineering groups have scouted out a new summit route that avoids Nichols' property. "Some of it is off-trail, and it has some rock fall. But at least it's an option," he says. "We're trying to avoid having another Culebra Peak."

On that fourteener in southern Colorado, a private landowner charges hikers for access. Such a "pay-to-play system," says Anderson, "goes against my basic beliefs about public land and access to it."