(Ed’s note: This post updates a breaking news story, below.)
By Tim Mutrie
Last updated: March 16, 6:24 p.m. Telluride Time
Stakeholders in Telluride’s continuing Bear Creek access saga are hailing today’s decision by the U.S. Forest Service—restoring public skier access from the Telluride ski area into the Upper Bear Creek sidecountry—as progress, but something short of outright victory.
Not that anybody has really stopped skiing Upper Bear Creek, albeit illegally, ever since the USFS access gates closed back in mid-December, and not that anybody has been busted, so to speak, for doing so.
“This is good news,” Lance McDonald, a local skier, said in an interview with Powder.com today. “And we look forward to continuing to work with the Forest Service to improve access to Bear Creek.” (For the detailed backstory on the Bear Creek access issue, see Trouble in Telluride, published Dec. 14 on Powder.com.)
Tom Chapman and his partner, Ron Curry, control the Gold Hill Development Co. A year ago, Gold Hill DC bought up a swath of old mining claim in-holdings in Upper Bear Creek, and eventually persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to remove the backcountry access gates leading into Upper Bear Creek because, they contend, it leads to skiers and snowboarders trespassing on their private property. Phone messages left by Powder.com for Chapman and Curry were not returned today.
Judy Schutza, the local district ranger of the USFS who ruled to close the access gates back in December, said in interview today that she doesn’t regret that decision. “I needed to respond to the Gold Hill Development Company’s concerns, and we needed time to work through the issues,” she said.
Schutza is also the ranger who today ruled to reestablish access to Upper Bear Creek, via a new gate near Palmyra Peak. While there used to be three access points along the Gold Hill ridge leading into Upper Bear Creek, yesterday there were none and tomorrow there will be one. The new gate is about a half-hour hike up the ridge.
“Good news? I think it is,” said Schutza. “The best thing is we worked this out with a group of local enthusiasts, including the Telluride Mountain Club [a local nonprofit]; they were extremely helpful.”
“I have not talked to [Tom Chapman] personally, no. But he has been notified of this decision. … I actually just left a message with his attorney.”
“But the [Telluride] ski company is good with this, they support it, they’re definitely on board with us. It’s TelSki that actually puts in the access point, and they helped select the location of the [new] gate. We also have some maps that the Telluride Mountain Club helped us produce that identify private property and will help people back there respect other people’s land,” Schutza continued.
As for the summer access issue in Bear Creek—Chapman and Curry contend popular hiking routes like the Wasatch Trail also cross their property—Ranger Schutza says there is no issue. “There is no summer access issue,” she said. “We’re planning to manage for the status quo; open, same as it has been.”
The group of local enthusiasts who spearheaded what may be best described as “diplomatic efforts” to find middle ground with the Forest Service in the effort to “free Bear Creek” conducted a sanctioned (by the USFS) tour of Bear Creek back in mid-January. They brought along a professional surveyor, equipped with a seven-satellite GPS, in order to precisely map some of the private lands in question, and demonstrate how skiers and riders may egress out of Bear Creek without trespassing on private land.
"We went right through the closure and made some awesome powder turns. But that day people are skiing all kinds of stuff everywhere back there anyway, closures or not… So we're in one safety zone, and here comes one guy, no pack, by himself, and skis right past us through this slide path that's killed people in the past. It was hilarious—and disturbing,” one local skier, who asked not to be identified, told Powder.com back in January when the ski-surveying mission happened.
What the surveyor found, and what the skiers’ believed, confirmed this: "You can still ski a lot of routes without trespassing,” the skier said. “It means you'll have to cut out a little higher, do a walking traverse, and then boot up three or four minutes, maybe, and then you just glide to the Waterfall Chute. Overall, it showed the public can go out Bear Creek without trespassing—it's not physically impossible.”
Findings from the recon mission were then presented to the Forest Service. Tor Anderson, president of the Telluride Mountain Club, called today’s ruling “a small step.”
“But,” Anderson continued, “we’re psyched that something happened this year. We thought that nothing was going to happen. And more than that, the Forest Service has expressed an interest in continuing to work with us on this. Sometimes, in the past, there’s been a confrontational pose between us.”
Anderson also described the ongoing negotiations between the Mountain Club and local ski enthusiasts and the Forest Service. “It was mostly just dialogue. We mostly, and Lance McDonald especially, he was instrumental in piecing it together. And it came out to this plan and how to potentially do it. We showed them how you could get around the private land in the snow, and we had the surveyor’s findings to prove it.”
“But the Forest Service is notoriously slow and not a lot happens quickly, so we’re happy for now with one gate,” Anderson said. “They’ve also said that summer use on the Wasatch Trail is unchanged. So that may put a thorn in Chapman’s side, and we’ll see what happens there. But summer use is equally important to us, and we’re happy the Forest Service is saying, ‘Nope, it’s still open.’ Maybe that’ll make Chapman dance…”
Stu Fraser, Mayor of Telluride, was also pleased this afternoon when contacted by Powder.com.
“It’s a positive step. Victory would be having the access go back to the way it was before, but as it stands now every bit of access that we’re able to achieve is positive. So I’m happy to say that we are moving ahead, slightly,” Fraser said. “We’ll have to see what happens from here. There will be more in the papers, I’m sure of that!”
Asked whether all the Bear Creek stakeholders were happy today, Ranger Schutza laughed. “That’s a hard one to answer. I know a couple that are, but you’ll have to ask them. And maybe ask me in a week when I get some feedback. But I’m happy. I’m really pleased we had some users who approached me and came up with some constructive ideas. People are very passionate about it, and the only way we can reach common goals is by working together.”
As for the new “treasure map” showing private property to avoid in Bear Creek, Schutza said, “It’s not perfect, but it’s as best we know it and we’re asking people to respect private property. Without the Telluride Mountain Club folks, I don’t think this would’ve happened. … This summer we’ll work with local groups and local governments and see we what we can do for next ski season,” in terms of restoring full access to Upper Bear Creek. “So that’s still open for discussion,” Schutza said.
Published: March 16, 3:24 p.m. Telluride Time
Breaking news in the continuing Bear Creek Watch: Today the U.S. Forest Service announced it will, in partnership with the Telluride ski area, establish a new backcountry access gate from the ski area into Upper Bear Creek sidecountry. The move follows a December 2010 action that closed three access points from the ski area into Upper Bear Creek, effectively making skiing Upper Bear Creek from the ski area illegal.
Stu Fraser, the Mayor of Telluride, told Powder.com in an interview today: “It’s a positive step. Victory would be having the access go back to the way it was before, but as it stands now every bit of access that we’re able to achieve is positive. So I’m happy to say that we are moving ahead, slightly.”
(For further backtory, see Trouble in Telluride (published Dec. 14), and Bear Creek Watch: Gold Hill D.C. Sues Telluride Ski Resort (published Jan. 20).)
Today’s news release from the office of Judy Schutza, Norwood District Ranger, Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests, follows below, along with a detailed map that is being distributed.
BACKCOUNTRY ACCESS TO OPEN ON PALMYRA PEAK
Norwood, Colo. (March 16, 2011) — Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza has decided to establish a backcountry access point (BAP) on Palmyra Peak at the Telluride Ski Area. The BAP will restore public access to National Forest System lands adjacent to the Telluride Ski Area. Schutza's decision is the result of partnering with the Telluride Mountain Club (TMC) who provided ideas that would restore public access, while reducing the potential for trespass across private lands within Upper Bear Creek. In addition, TMC will assist with public education and information about legal routes and access to terrain that doesn't affect private land.
The new BAP is located on Palmyra Peak and requires a hike to gain access to the area. A map of the area that shows landmarks and depicts private land within the Bear Creek Basin and the surrounding area has been made and posted at the BAP for reference. Copies of the maps will be available at Ski Patrol and on the GMUG National Forest website and the TMC website.
According to Judy Schutza, "This decision restores reasonable public access to Alta Lakes Basin, Lena Basin, Bear Creek and also provides for future discussions and exploration of ski access issues with local government and interested publics before the next ski season." Schutza added "Backcountry skiers and snowboarders need to re respectful of private land and reference the map developed with the TMC to avoid private property."
Backcountry access points leading into Bear Creek from the Telluride Ski Area were eliminated earlier this year as a "good neighbor" effort in response to written requests from private landowners who were concerned with skier trespass across private property.