Bulldozer Blackmail

Mountain Life
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The 9,156-square-foot Aurora Log Residence," declares a promotional brochure, "is without doubt the most private residence in Colorado, perhaps in America. Yet it is only a short, four-minute flight to the ski slopes of Vail or Beaver Creek." Another property description reads, "The Cross Creek Log Home is a hand-crafted, 4,744-square-foot jewel of a log home. Featuring 14-inch full round logs, tile roof, in-floor heating system, heirloom quality kitchen cabinets and doors, five bedroom suites and five full baths, gourmet kitchen, ski room, laundry, caretakers' suite."

They sound like dream houses. There's only one catch: Each of these properties, as yet unbuilt, lies inside a federally protected region described by law as "an area where the earth and its community are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

In other words, a wilderness area. The advertised homes would be constructed by a developer on private properties inside the 121,833-acre Holy Cross Wilderness, which was designated by Congress in 1980 and lies south of Beaver Creek.

These private properties are relic mining claims, known as inholdings. Originally laid out by miners hoping to strike it rich, the mining claims were eventually "patented," or converted into private property, under the 1872 Mining Act. Legislators never envisioned trophy home development in wilderness, yet that may be just what happens-to the dismay of conservationists, the U.S. Forest Service and Congress.

When a wilderness area is designated by Congress, many small inholdings typically are not acquired on the assumption that they will be bought later by the Forest Service. Now, as real estate values in resort towns skyrocket and more money chases unique properties, wilderness inholdings seem to promise the greatest possible isolation. Few inholdings have been developed because roads through wilderness to access them generally are prohibited. The would-be developer of the Holy Cross Wilderness inholdings, a Montrose, Colo., firm called TDX, is planning helicopter-supported construction and presumes homeowners will depend on helicopter access, on the legally uncertain theory that helicopters can land on private land, even in a federal wilderness.

The potential for trophy-home development inside wilderness areas has alarmed many people. TDX offered 10 homesites for sale this summer in or near the Holy Cross Wilderness, plus others in the Weminuche Wilderness near Durango, Fossil Ridge Wilderness near Crested Butte and several inside the newly designated Black Canyon National Park in Western Colorado.

A separate developer is proposing homes deep inside the San Juan National Forest near Pagosa Springs, Colo., on a non-wilderness tract-a project many Pagosans promise to fight. Developer Jim Siever wants to build a private resort on an inholding in Montana's Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness. In North Cascades National Park in Washington, owners are asking the National Park Service to pay several million dollars for a 140-acre inholding.

Aggressive inholding development began in 1992 when Tom Chapman, an Austin, Colo., real estate agent, began building a log home on a 240-acre inholding in Colorado's West Elk Wilderness. Chapman and partners had paid $240,000 for the land; once they started building via helicopter, the Forest Service decided to trade 105 acres of Forest Service property near the Telluride ski resort for the West Elk inholding. Chapman later sold the Telluride land for $4.2 million."When Chapman and TDX go in and do this, they know what the rules are, and they're trying to pick a fight," says Andy Wiessner, a public lands consultant in Vail. "They're not historic long-term small landowners. They go in and try to provoke a confrontation with an intent to try to fleece the taxpayer. It's legal blackmail."

Chapman denies he is an owner of TDX, although a phone call to his office yielded a TDX press release. He declined to speak with SKI buut did provide a copy of a Dec. 21, 1997, letter he wrote to Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo.

"There is nothing illegal about one private citizen buying land from another private citizen," Chapman wrote Campbell. "There is nothing illegal or unethical in my working for remote landowners to get them the highest possible price for their lands. Every real estate broker in America has the same objective."

Chapman's critics have accused him of "bulldozer blackmail." High-end development proposals, they allege, are thinly-veiled attempts at extorting the public treasury.

The spate of inholdings being offered for sale has resulted in much official fuming and hand-wringing, but no action. "Obviously, something needs to be done," says Josh Penry, press secretary for Rep. Scott McInnis (R-Colo.), whose district covers much of western Colorado. "Even though Mr. Chapman is working within the bounds of the law, in our estimation he's little more than an extortionist."

Despite the rhetoric, McInnis and most of the rest of Congress are loathe to use the tool provided by the law to deal with controversial inholdings: Congressional land condemnation. If Congress condemns an inholding, a judge decides how much the land in question is worth, based on comparable sales, and that's how much the owner gets.

Typical undeveloped inholdings go for tens of thousands of dollars. The four Cross Creek parcels were sold to Chapman for $104,000, according to Jon Mulford, founder of the Wilderness Land Trust in Hood River, Ore.; the four proposed homes and land are listed by TDX for $2.5 to $4.6 million each. The Aurora parcel was appraised at $15,000; the planned home is listed at $8 million.

The other way to prevent inholding development is for Congress to more fully fund Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and Fish & Wildlife Service efforts to purchase inholdings. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which gains revenues via off-shore oil-drilling fees, has a roughly $1 billion surplus and is a primary source of money for such purchases. But, according to a November story in The New York Times, appropriations typically run only $300 million to $400 million annually for all the agencies' land acquisitions. The Park Service alone has identified almost $1.4 billion worth of land it needs to protect. The result is a shortage of funds to buy inholdings just at a time when the value of those lands is rising.

Wilderness activists worry that if Chapman, TDX, developer Jim Sievers in Montana or someone else actually builds and sells a trophy home, the price of other inholdings will be radically skewed upward. The National Park Trust has called inholding development "the undiscovered crisis."

"How many times," asks lands consultant Wiessner, "is Congress going to let them punch us in the nose before we punch back?"

By The Numbers

Total federal land designated as wilderness: 35 million acres.

Private inholdings: 130,000 acres.Got a question for Mountain Property editor Hal Clifford? You can e-mail him at hclifford@skinet.com.

Hot Property: John Elway's Ruby Ranch Home, Silverthorne, Colo.

Design File: Zoe Murphy Compton Lighting