In the latest volley in an ongoing controversy that took root in the late 1990s, the U.S. Forest Service reopened two of the four gates on Telluride's Gold Hill last month, once again granting skiers legal access to Bear Creek.
The gates had been closed since December 2010, due to a private landowner's requests. But that didn't stop skiers from skiing the area anyway. After monitoring land use since they closed the gates, and seeing little change in backcountry skier traffic, the Forest Service decided that they'd rather have backcountry skiers leave the area through designated access points. "We want people to have information and be aware that they'll have to self-rescue out there," says Forest Service ranger Judy Schutza, who has been in charge of the gates.
Local backcountry skiers say it's the right move. "The Colorado snowpack is scary in general, so to feel like you had to sneak something, I think, made it more dangerous," says local skier Hilaree O'Neill. "People were not paying attention, and were dropping in on each other trying to be fast and sneaky."
Bear Creek is a sprawling, steep, chute-choked drainage; it's some of the best lift-accessed backcountry in the country. It's also some of the most technical and treacherous—according to a 2012 San Miguel County report, more skier deaths have occurred in Bear Creek than at any other location in the county, and all avalanche-related deaths were caused by extreme trauma, not suffocation. Access has been fraught for a long time. A lot of that is due to private inholdings within the Forest Service boundary, and one landowner in particular, developer Tom Chapman, who is known for strong arming other property owners, including the government, to increase the value of his land.
The Bear Creek land issue dates back to 1998, when the Forest Service arrested two skiers, Matt Lewis and Himay Palmer, for skiing across private land. They argued that they hadn't trespassed because they'd accessed the land from a public trailhead. But the Forest Service didn't see it that way. They sprayed mace on an irate Palmer and handcuffed them both. The interaction set off a fight, spearheaded by the Telluride Mountain Club, to open backcountry access gates and delineate public land.
In 2000, skiers convinced the Forest Service to put in access points on Palmyra Peak at the top of the Gold Hill Chutes. The backcountry gates were also part of a terrain expansion in the resort. Local skiers thought the problem was solved, but the debate didn't end there. Ten years later, in December 2010, they closed the gates again due to complaints from a Bear Creek landowner. There are private inholdings in the Forest Service land in the canyon, and those landowners didn't want skiers cutting through their property. "It's possible to avoid the private property, it's not the only route, but most of the gravity feeds will take you down that way," says Schutza.
The thorniest property owner is Chapman, who, with a partner named Ron Curry, owns 40 acres in Bear Creek under the name Gold Hill Development Company. Chapman is known for questionable land deals and leveraging public agencies to up his property values, and in Telluride he came in and started controversy immediately. He bought the land in the spring of 2010 and by the end of the year had convinced the Forest Service to shut the gates. They did so abruptly in December of 2010, after he argued the gates brought skiers onto his property illegally, and threatened to sue. Chapman has also used development to threaten the government or local conservation groups so they would have to buy the land. If that doesn't work, he'll develop to make a profit without any regard for the surrounding public land. In 2010, he built a mega-mansion on the rim of nearby Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and threatened to bulldoze a road through the national park.
There's another private landowner in Bear Creek, too, but Chapman has been the provocateur in cutting off access. He says he's opposed to the gates because he thinks a federal agency—the Forest Service—is condoning trespassing on private land—that would be his. He thinks it's a liability if people get hurt on his property. But, because of his past property dealings, people are skeptical about his intentions and think he's bluffing to try to make more money. He initially planned to build a competing ski resort on the land, but now says he plans to build a private house.
O'Neill says that, in town, people have lost patience with Chapman's threats and have largely started to ignore them. "I think the lack of publicity actually makes him madder," she says. "People are just ignoring him, which probably has more of an effect then when he was in the paper."
Now, four years after Chapman's request, Schutza said that closing the gates didn't work, flat out, and nothing changed. Skiers disregarded the decision and the area gets skied just as much as it did before the closure. She said that if people are going to ski the area, she'd rather see them go through designated access points, where they can give information. The terrain is complicated, cliff ridden, and slide prone, and if people are going to ski it, she'd rather have them be informed when they go out.
Josh Borof, the vice president of the Telluride Mountain Club, the local nonprofit that advocates for backcountry access, says the reopened gates should help do that. "The closure has given people some bad habits. The protocol became more of looking over your shoulder and diving off the ridge," he says. "We think people should use the gates, there's no reason not to use it except for being lazy. Laziness has no place in backcountry skiing."
At the ski area, Jeff Proteau, Telluride Mountain Resort's VP of mountain operations says that they're pleased about the Forest Service's decision, because it aligns with an original record of decision that governed the Palmrya Peak expansion (which stated they would provide backcountry access) and because it makes it easier for them to regulate the ski area boundary if people are funneled through the gates. "There's 18 miles of rope up there. It's impossible to control," he says.
Schutza said she has been in communication with Chapman, and that, going forward, he's going to have to sign and control his property on his own accord. It's up to the private land owner to manage their land," she says. "I called Tom Chapman before I made the decision. He understands our point of view, we understand his."
O'Neill says she hope that this time the gates will be open for good, and that skiers won't abuse the privilege. She says that the first day the gates were open there was a bit of a frenzy, and one skier got himself cliffed out, necessitating a rescue. "It's so accessible and perfect and awesome, but I wish people would give it respect," she says. "If people have accidents back there they might close it again, and that's the last thing I want to happen."