Public lands "blackmailer" returns


Loathed by government officials, recreationists and environmentalists alike, Colorado developer Tom Chapman is at it again. His latest deal exemplifies his typical modus operandi: buy inholdings in remote backcountry, threaten to develop them, and get big payouts from federal agencies desperate to protect pristine public lands. Now he's purchased 103 acres of mining claims in the Uncompaghre national forest -- the "treasured" Bear Creek drainage (near Telluride) -- and has closed the land to hiking and skiing, reports the Denver Post.

The Forest Service, which last month issued a one-year permit to Telluride Ski and Golf Co. allowing guided ski trips into the steep-and-deep Bear Creek drainage, said the closure would not affect guided operations.

In Telluride, skiers who value Bear Creek as the valley's best hill already are closely watching the ski area's plans for the drainage. Now, the skiers are planning routes around Chapman's closed land. A close view of the three parcels he acquired last month shows they are not connected.

Chapman first became notorious in 1984, when he and a client threatened Black Canyon National Park (then a monument) by starting to bulldoze roads for a subdivision of 132 homes overlooking the canyon. The Park Service eventually bought them out for more than $2 million, four times what the land was worth. In 1992 he bought a 240-acre inholding in the West Elk Wilderness Area and began helicoptering in supplies to build a luxury cabin. To stop him, the Forest Service traded him a 110-acre parcel near Telluride. Each chunk was worth $640,000, the agency said, but Chapman resold his for $4.2 million. In 2000, he declared that he would build trophy homes on mining claims in the Holy Cross Wilderness. (see our stories Tom Chapman: A small town boy who made good and Developer tries to make a killing off the Black Canyon). In 2003 he began auctioning on Ebay a 113-acre inholding in the Black Canyon. Chapman still has lots for sale within the park and is building a mansion  there.

Chapman hasn't announced plans for the Telluride parcel yet, but no doubt he'll soon be advertising the construction of a new lodge or the sale of luxury home parcels -- and waiting for the federal cash register to start ka-chinging. But with agency budgets trimmed to the bone, it's doubtful that the Forest Service will be able to pony up the cash it once did to buy out inholdings.

And It's long past time for the agencies to call the bluff of privateers like Chapman and fight fire with fire. As HCN's former publisher Ed Marston suggested over a decade ago:

When Chapman began building his log cabin in Colorado's West Elk Wilderness, a bill should have begun moving through Congress to strip the land around his 240 acres of wilderness status. At the same time, the Forest Service should have begun planning to road and log the land surrounding the inholding.
When Chapman threatened to bulldoze in a subdivision at the Black Canyon, the National Park Service should have begun planning a dump or a metal building next to his subdivision. Scorched earth should be met by scorched earth.
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