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
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
Despite the intense public
furor, the deal was eventually done and Chapman sold his newly
acquired Telluride land for $4.2 million.
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.
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."
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
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
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?"
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
The writer works for the
Telluride Times Journal.