THE BULLY PULPIT | A Public Access Success Story

By Joan May | San Miguel County

Over the years we’ve lost quite a few trails that local hikers, climbers, skiers and mountain bikers had taken for granted.

One memorable story started in the 1990s when Tom Chapman started building his reputation in this area by acquiring public land near Alta Lakes and making it private, closing down trails and terrain that many entities have been trying to regain access to ever since.

Then there was the ski area expansion, which was a great improvement for lift-accessed skiing and passage to side-country skiing, but it denied once-open access to Nordic and backcountry skiing in Prospect Basin.

Beloved biking trails at Skyline Ranch were closed when the Farny family sold the property ten years ago. A few years later groomed Nordic skiing at Faraway Ranch ended when the generous owners, the McKinneys, sold and moved on.

In the late 1990s the San Miguel Valley Corp blocked access to the Valley Floor to make a statement about who was really boss of the Telluride Valley Floor.

Local icon and mountaineer Chuck Kroger was arrested for trespassing on the Valley Floor. When the judge sentenced him with a fine and a demand that Kroger not trespass again, Kroger reportedly agreed to the fine but said he couldn’t possibly promise not to trespass.

When Rusty Nichols shut down access to Wilson Peak in 2004, folks around here felt kind of like Snoopy in the old Peanuts cartoon, shut out of all his favorite places, with “no dogs allowed” signs springing up right in front of him, wherever he went.

Raise your hand if you were one of the unfortunate intruders who was caught, and as part of your punishment, had to write a letter to the editor apologizing to Mr. Nichols for trespassing, and stating that you were “no smarter than a third grader,” for ignoring his signs.

San Miguel County is made up of about 64 percent public lands (mostly federal, some state and local), yet residents and visitors have an appetite for more. Around here we seem to think it’s our right, to access every place that has trails—or even potential for them. And we as a region don’t seem to be afraid to ask forgiveness rather than permission. Private landowners have become increasingly protective of their privacy. Or maybe they are just tired of the increased traffic across their land as advancements in mountain bikes, backcountry skis and all modes of recreation keep pace with the rapidly growing numbers of people around here fit enough to use them. Maybe there’s a bit of fear of liability mixed in. Whatever the reason, most of us have experienced a loss of once-loved trails to the enforcement of private property rights.

Sometimes there’s good news in the trails world, though. San Miguel County, Telluride and Mountain Village have built many new trails. Thanks to Rich Salem and the San Miguel Conservation Foundation, Bear Creek is now a preserve. And TSG and San Miguel County prevailed over Tom Chapman in keeping the Wasatch Trail open.

The prime local example is the Town of Telluride’s 2007 acquisition of 570 acres of the Valley Floor, which, thanks to herculean efforts by countless citizens, has preserved that land as forever wild. And forever open to biking, walking, floating, hang-glider landing, skiing, prairie dog colonies and vast herds of elk.

Not to be overlooked, the recent Wilson Peak Land Exchange is also worthy of awe and praise of all who made it happen. This exchange has been in the works since mutual disdain erupted between climbers who were denied access to 14,016-foot Wilson Peak, and the disgruntled Nichols.

Forest Service Land Exchanges (known in the trade as Land Ownership Adjustment Strategies or LOAS) are notoriously complicated affairs. But this one set a whole new standard for complicated. The quick story: Nichols shut down access, the forest service quickly found alternative access that required the acquisition of some private mining claims.

In walks one of the heroes of this story, the Trust for Public Lands. TPL held the mining claims for the forest service until the land exchange could be completed.

Throw into the recipe our next hero, the new owners of Skyline Ranch, who were open to a land exchange and were keen to provide public access to popular trails and equally dedicated to preserving the most environmentally sensitive areas of their property.

Add the Telluride Mountain Club and San Miguel Bike Alliance, who not only provided valuable knowledge and accurate maps of the best mountain bike trails at Skyline and Alta Lakes, but also gave a credible voice to the hundreds of trail users the groups represent.

San Miguel County played a role, too, in facilitating the exchange and representing the interests of the public. Enthusiastic support from the public let the Forest Service know that this LAOS was on the right track.

This spring, the draft decision and Environment Assessment for this long-awaited exchange was released, bringing the project a giant step forward.

As a result, the U.S. Forest Service will acquire about 680 acres owned by Skyline Ranch Trust LLC, Alta Lakes LLC and TLP, providing key trail segments to connect mountain bike trails in the Telluride Ski Area with the Galloping Goose trail, as well as access to Wilson Peak (and the beautiful Rock of Ages trail…if you haven’t hiked it yet, you really should, especially in flower season.)

Just to complicate matters further, USFS also gets a tiny addition to the La Garita wilderness in Saguache County.

In exchange, Skyline Ranch Trust LLC and Alta Lakes LLC will receive two National Forest parcels to square off their boundaries, and TPL will receive a parcel on Wilson Mesa.

The final decision is still pending, but all parties are optimistic.

Lesson learned from this long saga: your voice makes a difference. If you care about your trails, there are things you can do to protect their future.

For one, be respectful of private property. We can all help landowners and trail users build trust. Next, pay attention to public land decisions and get involved. You can join the Mountain Club or the Bike Alliance or your local conservation group such as the Sheep Mountain Alliance. Find out enough about proposals to write a comment letter. Our public lands belong to all Americans, and it’s up to us to shape their future.

The final decision is is expected from the regional USFS office on July 31.  All parties are optimistic that this will soon become one for the books: a model of collaboration between federal land agencies, private landowners, citizens, local governments and user groups.

About the Author

Joan May

Joan May is a San Miguel County Commissioner. She is also a board member of the San Juan Independent, and an avid public lands user and steward. She really tries not to trespass.