TELLURIDE – What began as a private property dispute over inholdings in the Bear Creek basin could become the newest ski area in the region if notorious land developers Tom Chapman and Ron Curry are successful in acquiring U.S. Forest Service permits.
On Thursday, Chapman and Curry, now operating together as The Creek Associates, L.P., announced their vision for the newest and highest ski resort in North America, to be called Bear Creek at Telluride Ski Resort. According to information provided by Chapman, the ski resort proposal encompasses approximately 1,300 acres of “adventure skiing” on lands in the upper Bear Creek basin.
As proposed in information presented to the media, and subject to U.S. Forest Service permit approval, human-powered and optional helicopter-lift skiing on avalanche-controlled snow would be available. Skiers and riders could enjoy deep powder snow, with no grooming, no trees and no clear-cut trails. No lift towers or other permanent structures would be built, resulting in no trace of winter skiing for summer users of Bear Creek. A proposed warming yurt would be erected each winter on private lands, and then removed every June 10.
The ski area permit application, according to Chapman, will include helicopter disembarkation points circumscribing the upper Bear Creek Basin ridgeline, and will exclude any upper basin private lands not owned, leased or licensed by Bear Creek at Telluride Ski Resort, L.P., “The Creek” Associates, L.P., General Partner.
Chapman said last week that he and his team have been working with the U.S. Forest Service to begin the application process through the Norwood Ranger District, and that a meeting to begin the process has been scheduled with U.S. Forest Service officials.
On Tuesday, Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza could not comment on specifics of the proposal, because nothing had been formally submitted.
Chapman said Schutza’s office has been made aware of the proposal, regardless.
The highest point in the proposed ski area, according to information submitted to the media from Chapman and Curry, is at 13,555 feet on Wasatch Mountain, and the lowest point is 11,562 feet on the private lands in West Fork of Bear Creek. Because of the short quick lifts, a dedicated skier could, according to Chapman, ski 15,000 vertical feet a day on dramatic sweeping lines, steep and deep couloirs, cliffs and bowls. And with qualified avalanche and safety control experts in place, Chapman emphasized that skiing upper Bear Creek will be safe
“With regards to just the safety issue alone, all skiers who value the safety of backcountry skiing, and we feel that is nearly everyone, would not have a problem with a minimal charge to make a place safe to ski,” Chapman said. “Let’s say we now had a niche ski area and you can purchase a ticket for a minimal price. You can go through one of the backcountry gates and know that you are going into an area that has been controlled by avalanche experts. That skier can go in there and have an absolutely wonderful day – and not be in conflict with landowners, as well.”
Chapman envisions the terrain will be open to skiers and riders of almost every level, including expert, advanced, and even intermediate, featuring deep reliable powder that builds on the leeward side of Palmyra Peak/Gold Hill Ridge. Riders will be able to ski in early November, Chapman said, through the normal season, and on through April and May. He added that the new terrain would shorten Telluride’s shoulder seasons and provide significant economic benefit to Telluride.
The proposal is a change in direction for Chapman; he and Curry are stakeholders in the Gold Hill Development Co., which purchased three contiguous mining claims in Bear Creek in 2010. Since then, Chapman says he has fought for the rights of private property owners in Bear Creek who share his belief that skiers and riders who cross through backcountry gates atop the Telluride Ski Area cannot ski across privately owned mining claims without permission. In the summer months, Chapman went as far as setting up guards to keep trespassers from crossing his lands. Chapman and Curry’s latest proposal, Chapman said, will help solve liability issues.
“We see this as a way for us to limit our liability,” Chapman said. “It’s a major policy switch for us. We don’t feel we have been successful in showing that the use of private property should be at the request of the property owner. When nobody is willing to acknowledge the property rights, at least in terms of crossing through private lands, this, in our opinion, is the next best thing toward finding a solution that works for landowners.
“To us, this is a way to minimize liability. At the same time, we believe the proposal would, in fact, work well with the side-country skiing community, and provide avalanche mitigation, which is key to making Bear Creek safe.”
The next step for Chapman and Curry is to continue with the federal permit application process. Chapman noted that it took nearly five years for the Silverton Mountain Ski Area to acquire its permit. If the U.S. Forest Service is willing to accept their proposal, Chapman said he and Curry would be willing to bring in other Bear Creek landowners and local stakeholders, including the Town of Telluride, the Telluride Tourism Board, Telluride Ski and Golf Co., San Miguel County and the Telluride Mountain Club.
If the Forest Service officials do not accept the proposal Chapman and Curry’s ultimatum, Chapman said, they have the right to build a 1,000-square-foot single-family luxury log home on the privately owned mining claims. The Modena Parcel is Bear Creek’s sole certifiable avalanche-free home-building site, Chapman said. As such, it essentially makes upper Bear Creek a private ski area for the homeowner’s family, guests and friends, with human-powered skiing to any point on the basin ridgeline, as well as private land to private land helicopter skiing on owned private lands, leased private lands, or licensed private lands within Bear Creek.
In this scenario, Chapman said, the private property lines surrounding the structure would be patrolled and enforced and that current public skiing through these private lands would end. He said the public skier could still ski the federal lands within the upper basin, but those skiers would have to be prepared to egress by skiing uphill to the Forest Service release gate on Palmyra Peak.
“Our intent by this proposal is to find a common sense solution that works for the public, the private landowners, and the Forest Service,” Chapman said. “What we will not [do] is beg. If the Forest Service or the community does not want to proceed with this common sense plan, then Ron and I go to our alternative plan, stated in the press release. Other Bear Creek landowners would have to decide whether to acquiesce to a ‘public taking,’ or fight to defend their property rights by closing their properties, building on their properties, and mining on their properties.”
Waiver to Ski Across Private Lands Offered
In the meantime, while the permit applications are in progress, Chapman said skiers and riders may enter “The Creek” Associates’ private lands in Bear Creek, provided they register and sign a liability release form found on their website at bearcreekattellurideskiresort.com.
Tor Anderson, director of the Telluride Mountain Club, offered up reasons why signing the Curry/Chapman waiver is not a good idea. First, Anderson said, the Wasatch Trail, which crosses through their private lands, is a federally recognized, USFS-inventoried and county-recognized public trail. The public has a right to access it in any season, Anderson said. Recognition of this public trail pre-dates most land ownership in Bear Creek, and San Miguel County itself.
Second, Anderson said, requesting and signing a waiver for access complicates one's right to prescriptive access, a powerful legal tool that could be the basis for restoring public access on and around the Wasatch Trail and Bear Creek.
Anderson pronounced it “ironic” that what initially triggered Chapman and Curry’s protest, proposed guided skiing, is now part of their newest development plan. Anderson said private landowners already have a generally high level of liability protection under Colorado’s Recreational Use Statute and that a majority of ski routes from the ski area’s Gold Hill access gate don’t cross onto “The Creek” Associates’ property.
“We don’t need a waiver to access federal public lands, and that is exactly what the Wasatch Trail is,” Anderson said. “We feel strongly about that. Nobody needs permission to access that.”
Anderson suggested that anyone who does sign the waiver is condoning Chapman’s tactics and plans, and putting public access to Wasatch at risk.
Chapman countered that if Anderson’s assertion were true, private property ownership in western Colorado wouldn’t be possible.
“I see where Tor Anderson of the Telluride Mountain Club is telling people not to a acknowledge private property in Bear Creek, via his sagacious theory that a purported public trail or road is in fact the width of an owner's property, 4,500 feet in our case,” Chapman said. “If that were true, public roads and public trails would negate all private property in Western Colorado. Mr. Anderson is doing a disservice to the public.”
Details of Chapman and Curry’s plans can be found at bearcreekattellurideskiresort.com.