Peter Shelton

A Bear Creek Chess Game

Posted in How the West was Lost, Ski history, Watch columns by pshelton on December 24, 2010

OK, let us review.

A year ago, the setup seemed, to a casual observer, pretty simple. The Telluride Ski and Golf Company introduced the idea of expanding the ski area into upper Bear Creek. The resort operator needed to update its master plan with the U.S. Forest Service anyway and began a process which included surveying local skiers on how they imagined their ski area of the future. Telski had already gained USFS permission to do snow and avalanche studies off the back side of Gold Hill and had secured a Forest Service permit to guide skiers into the terrain in question.

Telski CEO Dave Riley assumed an ostensibly neutral position on expansion; he was just asking for input. Though it was also perhaps clear from Riley’s enthusiastic spearheading of a new, Euro-style off-piste persona for Telluride – including the opening of steep terrain within the existing boundaries and new exit gates into public lands beyond – that his heart’s desire, most likely, was an expansion into the alpine cirques of upper Bear Creek.

Riley got grief for even bringing up the possibility – from backcountry skiers who liked things the way they are, and from defenders of the Bear Creek Preserve, Telluride’s piece of undeveloped, non-commercial paradise in lower Bear Creek. To the purists – and Lord knows, Telluride harbors a lot of them – Mr. Riley was the bad guy, proposing as he was, industrial tourism in a cherished wilderness.

Then along came Thomas Chapman to orchestrate the purchase (he is himself only a part owner) of a couple of patented mining claims, the Modena and the Bessie, which lie smack in the way of any ski area expansion.

Mr. Chapman has a history. He likes to buy, or represent the buyers, of private land inholdings, properties that are surrounded by public land, whether it be wilderness, national forest or national park. Then, in a sanctimonious show of defending private property rights from the bullies in Washington, D.C. (or county commissioners for that matter), he either develops these parcels, or threatens to and engineers a financial windfall for himself, either though a sale or exchange for other parcels.

(Engineer is a polite term for extort, which I used once in these pages to describe Chapman’s M.O. In return, he called me a socialist.)

Now the chess game gets more interesting. Chapman announced that his Gold Hill Development Corporation would not allow recreationists of any stripe, winter sliders or summer hikers, to cross his claims. In a counter move, Riley announced that Telski had bought a much smaller claim right next to Chapman’s Bessie (just a coincidence, Riley said), and that a chair lift could be built from there back to the ski area ridge. The lift would not infringe on any of GHDC’s holdings, and skiing around the private property, Riley said, would not present insurmountable problems, though it was difficult to see how this would work in reality.

Next Chapman enlisted the owners of the Nellie mine claim, which also straddles the floor of Bear Creek, in his effort to block skier egress. The word trespass was used a lot. And liability. And, of course, the public trampling of legal property rights.

Next thing we know, a couple of weeks ago the USFS announced that as a result of complaints, or requests, from private landowners in Bear Creek it was closing the boundary gates that had allowed skier access to the backside since 2000.

The media told of a “victory” for Chapman. Backcountry and sidecountry skiers stamped their feet and screamed. Telski maintained a mostly-silent, victim’s stance.

Now Tom Chapman was the bad guy.

Last week this newspaper printed excerpts from an interview with Chapman by Gus Jarvis, conducted via e-mail, and apparently done months ago for publication in Telluride Magazine. It was more of a self-serving monologue really, but in it Chapman laid out GHDC’s plans: they would reopen gold and silver mining on the site; they would completely fence the property; they would build a Euro-style stone hut; they planned to build a year-round  “eco-resort” of yurts on the Modena claim; and, most troubling of all, in order to get to their claims, they were going to develop a long-ago right of access via what Chapman calls “the historic Gold Hill Road,” and what just about everyone else would know as the See Forever run on the ski area.


But not checkmate. Here’s my best guess as to what will happen. The endgame will result in a draw that makes both principle players happy. (The third player, the USFS, I’m afraid, is mostly a tool of the other two.)

Chapman has made his play (though there will no doubt be more strut and bluster). The gate closure takes the pressure off Telski. Riley can move forward on the master plan, which will almost certainly include expansion into Bear Creek. The FS will approve the new plan, which won’t have received the intensity of resistance it might have because Tom Chapman remains a bulwark against Telski’s ambitions.

Eventually, though, a deal will be worked out. The FS will agree to a land exchange with Chapman. Or maybe Telski will buy out GHDC’s holdings. Then, access to upper Bear Creek from the ski area can be restored. Dave Riley will be the hero. And expansion will proceed.

I’m not just making this up. Here’s what Tom Chapman posted on Lou Dawson’s website on Dec. 18. “One more thing. In a perfect world the GHDC Bear Creek lands, the West family lands and the Alexander family lands would all belong to Telski, and the basin would revert back to an alpine backcountry powder-only ski Mecca . . . An upper Bear Creek that would be well planned and environmentally friendly. Thereby putting Telluride into the class of say a Vail with their back bowls, or in the format of a lift-accessed side-country Zermatt. Doing so would lift Telluride from the semi-minor leagues – to the major leagues.” His post envisions the expanded ski area going down only as far as the Nellie mine claim “thereby not interfering with lower Bear Creek and the Bear Creek Preserve.”

And he doesn’t stop there. He describes in detail the lifts Telski could build to get skiers back up to Revelation Bowl and the existing lift network. And more! Two more lifts that would, Josh Geeter-like, take the expansion across East Bear Creek to the lip of Bridal Veil Basin.

Is this a chess match worthy of Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer?

Or is this all just kabuki theater – a formal, if grotesque means to a predetermined end?

I don’t know. I’m just saying.


2 Responses

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  1. […] And finally, Peter Shelton, the dean of Colorado ski journalists, offered his perspective on the scheming and skullduggery, suggesting that Chapman and the ski resort could even be in cahoots on the Bear Creek deal, which wouldn’t be too far-fetched, considering the extraordinary steps some Colorado resorts take to expand their boundaries, knowing that it’s the best way to slice off just a slightly bigger piece of that non-expanding pie of skier demand. Read Shelton’s piece here. […]

  2. lance waring said, on January 4, 2011 at 5:46 pm

    Hey Peter,
    Jerry Roberts and Mike Friedman are teaching a “zen and the art of avalanche science” at the Ah-Haa school Feb. 8-10. There will be haiku writing involved. Let’s attend!

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