On Thursday, Telluride Ski and Golf Co. CEO Dave Riley confirmed that the gates have, in fact, been closed.
“After much discussion with local and regional staff, I’ve made a decision to remove the backcountry access points along Gold Hill Ridge that generally cause trespass across their private property,” Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza wrote in an email explaining the new policy as a response to requests by private landholders in Upper Bear Creek Basin who believe their holdings are subject to trespass because of the gates.
A fourth gate near Palmyra Peak would be relocated to the upper Prospect Ridge between Mountain Quail and Palmyra Peak, providing access to the Alta Lakes Basin, while the Contention (near the top of Lift 9) and Alta Saddle (south of Bald Mountain) access points will remain at their current locations.
“This should take care of the landowner concerns, but will certainly affect local use of upper Bear [Creek],” Schutza’s email continued. “It will also have an impact on all of our winter outfitter/guides in the drainage. They’ll need approval to operate on private land. Times have changed,” she wrote.
“A lot of people are very fired up; this will not go over well,” said Telluride Mountain Club Director Tor Anderson of the decision, which effectively cuts off public access to a wide swath of public lands, most of which go nowhere near the private holdings, he said.
“Those gates access much more area than the private claims, and the Forest Service has a legal obligation to provide access to public lands,” he said.
“Are they going to shut down hiking from Ophir?” he asked, noting that the public could ultimately trespass on the claims via gates there as well.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction to the landowners,” he said.
San Miguel County Commissioner Joan May, a recipient of the email, was also left scratching her head at the news.
“I don’t understand how they can close the gates when the gates themselves are not on private lands,” she said. “It seems like this is putting private property rights above public access.”
So, too, is local environmental group Sheep Mountain Alliance wondering about the decision, which could be interpreted as another win for Tom Chapman, a real estate speculator notorious for his involvement in controversial land trades with the federal government. Chapman purchased three mining claims in Upper Bear Creek last year as a partner in the Gold Hill Development Company.
Following that purchase, the GHDC announced it would be closing public access to parts of popular backcountry ski and hiking routes that traversed its claims. More recently the Telluride Ski Resort last week announced the cancellation of its backcountry guide program in the Bear Creek drainage, citing a “lack of alignment with private owners of mining claims in the drainage.”
“We respect the Forest Service’s decision,” said Telski CEO Dave Riley. “Obviously this was driven by private landowners, primarily Tom Chapman, because this wasn’t an issue until he purchased the property.”
“Since we’ve withdrawn our permit for guiding we’re no longer in the business of managing anything back there, but I’m sure a lot of people are going to be very disappointed and I doubt that this conversation is over; I don’t think this solves anything.”
Chapman had not returned two phone calls seeking comment as The Watch went to press on Wednesday.
“The number one concern is public access being cut off to public lands,” said SMA Executive Director Hilary White, noting that the organization plans to prepare a Freedom of Information Act request to examine the Forest Service’s decision-making process.
“We want to see all the files related to the decisions,” she said.
Indeed, interested locals are wondering whether the Forest Service has the authority to make what they view as a sweeping decision without eliciting any public input other than from the private property owners.
“There’s a question as to whether or not the closure has been done appropriately and through the proper channels,” Anderson said.
“I feel like the Forest Service didn’t use any public process to make this decision to close the gates,” agreed avid Bear Creek backcountry skier Brian O’Neill, who described himself as “saddened” by the decision.
“If they had, they may have learned there are certainly ways people can ski out the gates and not trespass.”
“We want to be good neighbors and discourage trespass,” Schutza said in a Forest Service press release made public late Wednesday afternoon.
Despite the uncertain future of backcountry access into Bear Creek, O’Neill felt confident that if an effort were made to educate users to avoid private property, a compromise might be found.
“People would be very willing to avoid trespassing in an effort to maintain our gate access,” he said.
“You have to trust the public and give it the benefit of the doubt.”
“We believe that, speaking for the ski company, there are public and prescriptive rights that are historic and we’re doing research right now to exercise those rights and we’ll be talking more about that,” said Riley.
“This is a situation where it’s not like Tom Chapman has sat down with us and said we want to be a good community partner and work something out,” he continued. “It’s like we’re all having a gun put to our head and we don’t appreciate that; I don’t the community appreciates it either.”
Rumors on Wednesday that Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza’s decision to close three backcountry access gates into Bear Creek Basin had been revoked by US Forest Service attorneys appear to have been just that. On Thursday, Dec. 9 a Forest Service spokesperson said that no such internal action had taken place to her knowledge, and that the gates had been closed.
“I’ve heard nothing about that,” said Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forest External Affairs Officer Lee Ann Loupe.
Responding to questions about whether Schutza’s authority extends as far as closing the gates without the public input many have assumed would be required, Loupe explained that the decision can be made administratively.
“There’s no requirement to do it through [the National Environmental Protection Act process,]” she said, explaining that the gates had been opened by way of administrative decisions, and likewise closed in the same manner.
While it is true that the Forest Service establishes access points such as those on Gold Hill to provide the public with access to public lands, the agency must also be sensitive to the rights of private owners in making those decisions, she said.
This story has been updated to reflect additional reporting.