Tom Chapman: A small-town boy who made good

  • Opportunist: Tom Chapman at his West Elk Wilderness hunting site

    Steve Hinchman

PAONIA, Colo. - Many Westerners see Tom Chapman as a scourge who extracts millions from taxpayers by threatening to develop private land within national parks and wilderness areas. To me, he is just a local Paonia boy who made good. Starting in the 1980s with nothing more than a real estate broker's license, an ability to withstand unlimited public scorn, and knowledge of the land around his home town, he has made himself wealthy.

He got his start in 1984 by threatening to bulldoze in roads on private land at Colorado's Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. To prevent this, the National Park Service paid the landowner Chapman was representing four times what it believed the land was worth.

His big coup came in 1993, when he used helicopters to begin to build a large cabin on private land he owned within the incomparable West Elk Wilderness in western Colorado. The Forest Service had resisted Chapman until the choppers started flying. At that point, the Colorado congressional delegation and the agency folded with a loud whoomp. The Forest Service ginned up an appraisal showing that 105 acres of land near Telluride, Colo., that Chapman wanted was worth the same $240,000 as the 240 acres of West Elk inholdings Chapman owned.

Telluride residents told Gunnison National Forest Supervisor Robert Storch that the land was worth millions, but he and then-Regional Forest Supervisor Elizabeth Estill, quietly backed by the Colorado delegation, pushed the trade through.

Even after it was clear - because of sales - that the Telluride land was worth at least 10 times the Forest Service appraisal, Storch and Estill defended the deal. When High Country News criticized the sale, Storch invited me to his office so that I could see that he had precisely followed policy, dotting every "i" and crossing every "t'. He and Estill, total bureaucrats, sincerely could not understand the difference between completing paperwork and doing a job right.

And neither could the top U.S. Forest Service leadership. Estill has moved on, but Storch, despite the enormity of his blunder, appears to be supervisor-for-life. Competent, mission-directed agency personnel like former Northern Rockies Regional Forester John Mumma, former Helena National Forest Supervisor Ernie Nunn, and former Toiyabe Forest Supervisor Jim Nelson (HCN, 12/21/98) are forced out by the the agency for bureaucratic missteps. But men like Storch, who set the stage for massive depredations of the public lands, are rewarded with lifetime jobs.

Predictably, the federal buy-out of Chapman's West Elk holdings has given him the capital to multiply his raids on the public's most prized land. At the moment, a company he is involved with, TDX, is hard at work around the ski towns of Crested Butte and Vail, and is also selling building lots at the site of his first success: the Black Canyon of the Gunnison.

No one is working to stop Chapman. The federal agency staffs don't know how to deal with him, and Colorado's U.S. senators, Ben Campbell and Wayne Allard, and western Colorado congressman Scott McInnis have shed crocodile tears and hurled invective at Chapman, but, given their lack of action, appear to be silently cheering him on. The West's congressional delegation in days can push through a rider to protect Battle Mountain Gold when it runs afoul of the 1872 Mining Law. And Campbell works night and day to give the felonious Louisiana-Pacific rights to log public lands. But even though years have now passed since Chapman's Black Canyon raid, the delegation can't figure out how to defend national parks and wilderness areas against his tactics.

Given the public land's lack of protection, it won't take long for others to follow in Chapman's footsteps. The opportunity is unlimited. There are about 13,000 acres of wilderness inholdings in Colorado, and 450,000 acres nationally. Chapman is a pioneer, pointing toward a new industry. Logging, mining and grazing may be on the decline, but here is a wonderful new way to make money off the public lands.

Which is not to say that Chapman is perfect. I like my robber barons to say things like: "I saw my opportunities and I took them." But Chapman shields himself in the pious cloak of private property. He says that wilderness and national park inholdings are incredibly valuable, and that we, the federal taxpayers, are trying to rob the poor inholders by not paying them the land's full value.

But it is the federal taxpayers who first gave the land its "full value" by creating ironclad federal land-use zoning. He, and the wealthy buyers he is forever threatening us with, can work hard to destroy the enhanced land values we created, but they assume the wilderness or national park, and therefore the "full value" of the land, will always be there.

The solution, of course, is obvious. When Chapman and his wealthy buyers threaten a piece of protected land, they should be offered fair value, where "fair" is the land's value without wilderness or national park zoning. If that's not enough, we should immediately withdraw wilderness or park protection.

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.

Will this happen soon? Not soon, but eventually, because the alternative is the payment of billions in ransom, and eventually Americans will balk at paying blood money. But it won't happen quickly, because the Interior West is not now capable of defending its most valuable assets. At the top of the land-management agencies sit Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and National Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck, and they are tough and capable men. But the top agency jobs, with happy exceptions such as the Forest Service's Gloria Flora (HCN, 10/13/97), are too often occupied by time-servers who think that pushing paper is land management.

Even worse, above the agencies sits the West's congressional delegation, which has been elected to protect our rights to bear arms and to destroy mountains in search of gold. Nothing else matters, including the protection of the West's only enduring resource: its federal lands.

Their protection awaits a cadre of tough, dedicated men and women to take over the land-management agencies from the present bureaucratic bunch (which we environmentalists had a lot to do with creating) and the election of congressional leaders to back them up.

In the meantime, Tom Chapman and his followers are going to prey on the Interior West the way beetles prey on the region's spindly, weakened forests. It is not going to be a pretty sight.

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

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