Tom Chapman's cunning real estate deals have made him a lightning rod in the battle over property rights in the wildlands of the West. Is he gaming the system or just playing smarter than everyone else?
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ONE DAY LAST APRIL, I followed a 25-year Telluride local as he slid up to a boundary rope at the top of the resort’s Revelation Bowl, glanced over his shoulder to see if anybody was watching, and ducked out of bounds. We traversed the rim of the famous Bear Creek drainage, a shimmering, 3,000-plus-acre playground of 45-degree couloirs and untracked powder ringed by the high, jagged peaks of Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. A dozen other skiers were visible up the valley.
Let's Not Make a DealRead more about the four real estate transactions that put Tom Chapman on the map
My guide—who asked not to be named, for fear of losing his job and his ski pass—picked a line, and we plunged downward, carving into creamy spring snow. Five months earlier, this terrain wouldn’t have been off-limits, but in December 2010 the U.S. Forest Service—leaseholder of Telluride’s more than 2,000 acres—had forced the resort to close the gates into Bear Creek, shutting down some of the best lift-accessed backcountry skiing in North America. At issue is a 30-acre bacon strip of land that separates Bear Creek from the town of Telluride, 2,850 feet below.
The controversial real estate speculator Tom Chapman had bought the parcel and several others for $246,000 from a doctor named George Greenberg the previous spring; then he complained to the Forest Service that skiers were trespassing as they exited the drainage on their way back to town. Chapman says that he and his business partner, a hippie turned chef named Ron Curry, plan to erect a gold mine on the site or perhaps build a European-style backcountry chalet. In January 2011, Chapman also filed a lawsuit against the resort’s parent company, Telluride Ski and Golf (TSG), contending that he has the right to keep an old road to his claim open year-round—a road better known to Telluride skiers as See Forever, an intermediate run and one of the hill’s main thoroughfares.
Judging by a letter he wrote to the Forest Service in May 2010, soon after he closed on the claims, it appears that Chapman’s goal is to force TSG to buy the land from him—in theory, the only way to halt his disruptive plans. Chapman insists all he wants is road access and to prevent trespassing on his land.
“What you are witnessing in Bear Creek is a massive appropriation of private property without compensation, with over 5,000 skiers a month passing through private lands,” he wrote in a May 2010 letter to the Forest Service. Before buying, Chapman had learned that the resort was exploring a boundary expansion into upper Bear Creek. Greenberg “mentioned that he’d received a request from TSG to cross his lands for the purposes of conducting a snow study,” says Chapman. Citing potential injury liability, he argued in his letter that the resort needed his land if it wanted its expansion: “TSG should own every acre above the Nellie mine before making an application for boundary expansion or guided skiing permit.”
Chapman, who’s 61 and has lived most of his life in and around Paonia, Colorado—two hours northeast of Telluride—isn’t your typical small-town realtor. Over the past two decades, he and his investors have bought more than two dozen wilderness properties and figured out ways to boost their values before reselling them. Last year, The Wall Street Journal called him “the Buzzard of the Backcountry” for the way he serially sniffs out, snaps up, and threatens to develop Colorado’s pristine inholdings—chunks of private property surrounded by protected federal land—unless the government, conservationists, or local communities pay him what he calls a fair market rate and they call a ransom.
As Chapman tells it, he’s simply defending the Fifth Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees that private property can’t be “taken for public use, without just compensation.” Just compensation is defined as fair market value, and when the government offers what seems like less than that, through an appraisal process that’s as complicated as it is arbitrary, landowners turn to Chapman for help. Greenberg, for example, bought his claims as an investment but was unable to sell them for a suitable price to a public or private buyer. Chapman stepped in with more money than any conservation group would offer.
Now, he has cut off skiers from backcountry access they’d been enjoying since before the resort opened in 1972. Not surprisingly, the townies are upset: stickers reading TOM CHAPMAN IS A DOUCHE BAG have cropped up all over Telluride. In public, Chapman denies that he’s looking for a buyout, and TSG’s management, aware of his tactics, hasn’t made any offers.
“I’m not going to come crawling on my hands and knees to this guy,” Dave Riley, the company’s CEO, said last April. “Maybe he just needs to sit up there and think about it for a while.”
I FIRST MET CHAPMAN and Curry in January 2011, at a diner in Paonia. Chapman—who’s about six feet tall, with a head of thinning brown hair and eyes set close to a beakish nose—was polite and talkative, though he doesn’t like dealing with reporters in person and avoids being photographed. That way, he told me in an e-mail, “I can ride the chairlift with you at Telluride, and you haven’t the slightest idea who’s sitting next to you.”
After lunch we hopped in Curry’s car and drove a winding county road. Along the way, Chapman pointed out fields where he bucked hay as a boy and ranches he sold as a young realtor. At an overlook, he pointed to a peak in the distance. “I’ve cross-country skied under full moons with some of my liberal environmental friends, all the way up that mountain,” he said.
Gesturing toward a valley below, he pointed to a structure. “There’s a roof… That’s where my house is.” In 1982, Chapman built a 950-square-foot hydroelectric-powered log home that requires a ten-minute ski-in during winter. He lived at the remote cabin year-round until the late eighties. Now he spends time there in the summer with his family. “It’s not big, but it’s gorgeous,” he said. “We used to have these wild parties up there every year.… You had all this natural beauty around you.”
Reminiscing, Chapman doesn’t sound like the vulture he’s been made out to be, and when you hang around Paonia many old-timers describe him as principled and hardworking. “He’s always been willing to lend a hand and has helped us out a lot around the property,” says Tom Beach, a retired physician and one of Chapman’s neighbors. He’s a decent piano player, too, and gives free concerts at nursing homes in the area. This Tom Chapman is a good old boy sticking up for the ordinary folks he grew up with.
“My value system is based on doing what’s right,” he told me. The way he sees it, his deals are made possible by the overreaching of a corrupt and unjust government.
“The preservationists who created the wilderness inholding in the first place did not have in mind that the entrapped landowner would have more than one option,” Chapman said. Follow his lead, he suggests, and you can make money while getting the government off your back. “The big and as yet untold story,” Chapman wrote in a mass e-mail response to the Journal profile, “is the regulatory taking of private lands all across America, with no compensation or values being diminished by a monkey-wrenched federal appraisal system.”
CHAPMAN’S BUSINESS MODEL is complicated—involving things like land swaps, mining patents, and conservation and access easements—but his strategy is simple enough: gain leverage by threatening to destroy something priceless, then cut a deal.
It’s a model that even the American Land Rights Association, an advocacy group for private property rights and inholding owners, has come out against. “Chapman is not an advocate for inholders and, in fact, does great damage to inholders nationally,” says Chuck Cushman, the group’s founder and executive director.
“He has no idea what I do,” responds Chapman. “That guy makes his living charging everybody $30 to subscribe to his newsletters.”
When the federal government moves to designate a roadless wilderness area, park, forest, or preserve, landowners inside the newly protected area aren’t always willing to sell. In the old days—for example, during the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890 or Shenandoah National Park in 1935—the feds basically condemned the land and booted everybody out.
Such strong-arming doesn’t happen anymore, thanks to the negative political fallout. These days the government offers landowners a take-it-or-leave-it price based on an appraisal. Chapman has represented a few of these people, but most of his deals start with people who bought existing inholdings.
In the national parks system, there are currently between 9,000 and 10,000 inholdings. Of the nearly 15 million acres of national forest in Colorado alone, there are about 1.5 million acres of inholdings. Inholding owners can buy and sell and can build structures, subject to county zoning laws, but they’ll never be able to drive to their properties if the land is located within federally designated roadless areas.
Still, inholdings are valuable, since their undeveloped state is crucial to an area remaining wilderness. And that’s Chapman’s bargaining chip. He buys properties that, in a sense, have contributed to the public good for free—either by remaining pristine or, in cases like Bear Creek, serving as playgrounds for hikers and skiers—and then extracts the value of their enjoyment. When he buys up inholdings and threatens to hammer together a mansion out in the woods, he forces government officials to give in to his demands or see the value of public land decrease.
William Wheaton, a real estate economist at MIT, says Chapman’s style represents “a classic holdout problem in land assembly, only in this case the assembler is the federal government rather than a private developer.” When the government assembles raw land into large contiguous areas, it all becomes more valuable. It’s that wilderness premium, rather than the usefulness or beauty of his own holdings, that Chapman trades on. Wheaton believes that the government would fare best by simply condemning the contested land and determining what to pay Chapman for it in court.
Only it won’t. The Forest Service doesn’t want to encourage copycats by dealing with Chapman, and it doesn’t want to look like a bully by condemning him. So it ignores him, until it can’t. Even if it were to go after him, Chapman is usually one step ahead, as some of his past fights show. In his favorite sandbox—Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, near Montrose, Colorado—he first discovered his knack for fighting the government and winning, and he’s repeated the formula several times.
THE DEFINING EPISODE happened in 1984, when a rancher and Chapman buddy named Dick Mott found himself in financial trouble and decided to sell 7,200 acres bordering what was then Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Monument. At the time, Chapman was a successful small-town realtor in Paonia. Mott first offered the property to the National Park Service. The government didn’t want it, so Mott hired Chapman and began to prepare the land to sell on the open market, putting in a water line and having Chapman file the paperwork to subdivide it. They also cooked up some publicity: Mott and a neighbor used a bulldozer to make it look as though he’d actually broken ground.
“We took a D7 dozer, hooked a big bush onto the corner of it, and went roaring up the hill kicking up dust,” says Mott. “It looked like we were starting to build a subdivision. But we did it for effect. We never had any intention of building condos.”
The stunt did not go unnoticed. A headline in High Country News blared, BULLDOZERS NIBBLE AT NATIONAL MONUMENT. The paper’s publisher at that time, Ed Marston, once one of Chapman’s fiercest critics, recalls the incident with a chuckle. “We were all hysterical over the idea. Tom is a master of drama.”
Three weeks later, President Ronald Reagan signed a law expanding the monument’s boundaries and effectively condemning 3,920 acres of Mott’s land, citing “threat of increasing development.” The government offered $200 per acre. Mott, whose appraisers told him his land was worth $700 per acre, sued on Fifth Amendment grounds. In 1987, when government lawyers realized they were going to lose—they were in clear violation of the Constitution—they settled out of court for $2 million, or about $510 per acre.
“The government was trying to cheat the landowner by paying him for the land’s agriculture value but claiming that they wanted to preserve the viewshed, which is the development value,” says Chapman.
When Congress finally turned the monument into a national park in 1999, it added a specific clause voiding the government’s right to take land inside the park by condemning it.
Having achieved a decisive victory and seen how the government could bully landowners, Chapman had a business model and a motive to replicate it. In 1989, he helped another local landowner shut down access to a property that fly-fishermen had been crossing for years to reach the gold-medal trout waters of the Gunnison River. Community leaders raised $400,000 to buy public access to the river.
In a 1992 land-swap play, Chapman and a group of investors paid $960,000 in a seller-financed deal for 240 acres high in the West Elk Wilderness. Chapman had represented his childhood friend Bob Minerich as the buyer’s agent three years earlier, when Minerich bought the same property for $240,000. Chapman subdivided the land, raising its value, and then began helicoptering logs out to a ridgetop cabin site that was visible for 25 miles in all directions.
Colorado Senator Hank Brown quickly pushed for a land swap, and the Forest Service offered Chapman 118 acres just outside Alta Lakes, near Telluride, in exchange for the West Elk parcels. Chapman’s property now appraised for $640,000, the same as the Alta Lakes property. Before the swap was completed in 1994, a man named David Forrest—who says Chapman approached him about becoming an investor in the deal—tried to warn the government of what he said was a price-inflation scam by writing a letter to U.S. Forest Service chief Jack Ward Thomas.
“Mr. Chapman explained that the price had to be high in order to justify a higher value for a trade,” Forrest wrote. “They believed that just a few helicopter flights to bring in building materials would be enough to convince the Forest Service that they would build.”
The land swap went through, despite the objections of Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell and conservation groups in Telluride, one of which took out ads in the Telluride Daily Planet claiming that the Alta Lakes property was worth at least $3 million. But even if Chapman had been scheming, it was the government that grossly undervalued its holdings. He sold the 118 acres for $4.2 million less than two years later.
DURING OUR TIME together last January, Chapman seemed to relish his war stories past and present. As we drove out of Paonia, he pointed toward the West Elk Wilderness and asked if I’d seen the video of him torching the unfinished cabin that he’d built up there. Then he perked up when we passed a snowy hayfield.
“This is Bill Koch’s,” Chapman said.
Bill Koch, 71, is the lesser-known twin of David Koch. David, along with elder brother Charles, helps bankroll the Tea Party movement and runs Koch Industries. Reclusive and quirky, Bill is probably best known for winning the America’s Cup sailing race in 1992 and, more recently, for opposing a windmill development off Cape Cod. He currently runs the billion-dollar Florida conglomerate Oxbow Carbon, which has a mine outside Paonia. Unlike his brothers, Bill Koch donates to both Democrats and Republicans.
Koch’s 4,500-acre Bear Ranch, two unjoined parcels near Paonia, is currently the subject of a land-swap feud that has pitted him against Chapman and an unlikely Chapman ally, Ed Marston, the retired publisher of High Country News. A staunch and outspoken environmentalist for the past 30 years, Marston had long been one of Chapman’s biggest detractors. But since August 2010, the two have joined forces in their battle against the land exchange. “He has been very helpful, and there’s nothing in it for him,” says Marston. “So perhaps he is driven by ideology.”
In the proposal, put forth in 2010, Koch wanted to trade the federal government 911 acres he owns in Gunnison County—along with 80 acres in Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument—for a 1,846-acre strip of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property that would connect the two sides of his ranch.
Marston has opposed this deal, which at press time was still pending, both for the lack of transparency in the process and because Paonia would lose its traditional access to the Ragged Mountain Wilderness. “There’s nothing in it for Delta County,” says Marston. Chapman, too, is fiercely opposed to the deal; he says it reeks of political cronyism.
“He’s basically buying his way into public lands through the influence of public officials,” he says of Koch. This is a reference to the fact that, since 2007, Koch and Oxbow employees have donated $30,000 to former Democratic congressman and current Colorado agriculture commissioner John Salazar—who proposed the Bear Ranch exchange in Congress—and that Koch had hosted Salazar, who is the brother of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, for several elk hunts at his ranch.
Koch sees things a little differently. “Chapman is a private-property-rights advocate as long as it’s to his advantage,” he said when I reached him at his home in Florida. In trying to join his two ranches, Koch pointed out, he has agreed to fund a mountain-bike trail from Carbondale to Crested Butte, offered various easements, and, in the latest version of the proposal, improved access to the Ragged Mountain Wilderness.
The concessions have done little to appease Marston and Chapman. But even as they toured the state together beginning in August 2010 and lobbied county commissioners and trails-and-recreation committees against Koch’s proposed exchange, Chapman was working behind the scenes to try and strike his own deal with Koch.
ON MARCH 15, 2011, Chapman walked into Koch’s Bear Ranch office and dropped off a package. He’d learned that Oxbow was eyeing some BLM property near Paonia for a new coal mine that, Koch acknowledges, is “definitely happening.” As in the past, a deal was about to get done and Chapman just happened to be there ahead of it.
The package contained detailed maps and a six-page letter that laid out a complex plan in which Koch would buy several properties from Chapman—only one of which Chapman actually owned at the time—and then trade them with the government for the Oak Mesa mine site. The letter to Koch, which Outside obtained from Oxbow, provides perhaps the clearest look at how Chapman operates.
“After everything I’d heard about him,” says Koch, “my first thought was that this is how Tom Chapman figures he’s going to get into my wallet—by fighting us on the [Bear Ranch] land exchange and then all of a sudden telling us he has a magic solution.”
One of the properties Chapman offered was a subdivision back in his old stomping grounds, Black Canyon National Park. “I control two compelling properties,” Chapman wrote. “One … is of course the Black Canyon National Park lands, all 112 acres including the new home.”
Chapman had bought those 112 acres for $240,000 in 1998, two months before legislation was introduced to make it a national park. Only this time, when he threatened to develop, the Park Service ignored him. So in 2009, he subdivided and built a 4,700-square-foot house, Casa Barranca, on 33 acres, which he still owns. He sold the other 79 acres—five plots known collectively as Signal Hill—for $2.1 million to a Maine wood-products manufacturer named Kim Cartwright.
In his letter to Koch, Chapman set Cartwright up as a bogeyman: “I understand he intends to build an estate-sized home, which will no doubt significantly alter the nature of the park.” Chapman, who’d already built next door, was ready to ride to the rescue, sort of. “If I can’t find a way to protect this Park,” he wrote Koch, “then I’m fine with construction on Signal Hill.” Yet, when I called Cartwright, he told me, as he’d told The Wall Street Journal, that he’d bought the land to preserve it, not to develop it, and that he was aware of Chapman’s effort to resell his land. “I’d like to see the park get it eventually,” he said. As to Chapman’s claims that he plans to build on it, he added, “Sometimes you tell little white lies to get what you want.” Chapman declined to comment.
The letter also proposed that Koch buy the Signal Hill properties from Chapman. How could Koch buy Signal Hill when Cartwright already owned it? Because Chapman and Cartwright had written a $3.1 million buyback provision into their deal. “Only a few people are aware of this option,” Chapman wrote Koch, though it had been published in the Journal. “A signed notarized deed back to Canyon Partners”—one of Chapman’s many entities—“is in place today in a vault in the office of Land Title Guarantee Company in Denver.… I simply walk into Denver with a cashier’s check and walk back out with the deed to the Signal Hill parcel.”
Koch would then “earn plaudits,” as Chapman put it, from both the government and the public by swapping the land with the federal government for the new Oak Mesa coal mine. “The Signal Hill parcel lays well for an RV campground,” wrote Chapman, suggesting that the Park Service could use the Casa Barranca house, too. “It would be similar to the Jenny Lake Lodge cabins at Grand Teton National Park.… I would lease the campground, including the new home, to the Park Service for five years. Doing this would be like giving cocaine to a cocaine addict.”
SO THAT’S THE simple half of the swap. Koch’s other trading stock would come from a package of 19 prime wilderness plots–known as the TDX parcels–that Chapman sold to Montrose businessman Mark Young in 2006 for $1 million. Young put $250,000 down in cash, and Chapman owner-financed the balance. According to court documents, Young planned to pay off his debt to Chapman by donating conservation easements on the parcels (a conservation easement is a kind of deed rider that restricts development) and selling the tax credits he got from them. But after Young was late on two payments, Chapman, as the mortgage holder, withheld permission for Young to donate the easements.
“If Young couldn’t do any more easements, he couldn’t pay off his loan to Chapman,” says David Masters, Young’s lawyer.
Chapman sued and then moved to foreclose, asking the court to return the land and reverse the four conservation easements Young had donated. Chapman seems ebullient at the prospect of voiding the easements.
“It’s an explosive untold story—potentially an environmental story of the year,” Chapman wrote to Koch. “The extinguishment of Colorado conservation easements has never happened.… When revealed, this situation could lead to the demise of the already-tenuous conservation easement program. It’s probably a fair bet to say I’m the last person in the world the government and conservationists would like to see retake possession of these wilderness lands.”
Chapman would then be free to sell the parcels, along with the 112 acres in Black Canyon, to Koch. Bundled together, Signal Hill and the TDX parcels would, Chapman wrote, “bring to the table $3.6 to $4 million in exchange value,” and “an unbiased appraiser, a well-chosen appraiser will come in around $7.5 million” for the Casa Barranca house.
“He’s a clever guy,” says Koch. “He dug into what we were doing and figured it out and came to us with a clever idea. But it was—how should I say it?—a little too cute.”
There are other problems, too. A review of county records turned up irregularities in documents associated with Signal Hill and Casa Barranca. Those records indicate the Black Canyon land may have been subdivided into lots smaller than 35 acres without county approval. “Based on our information and what we’ve seen in the deeds, it’s an illegal subdivision,” says Montrose County planning and development director Steve White. Chapman contends the split was made by the government in the sixties, when it purchased a road that cut through the land.
“Chapman created a mess,” says Daniel Markofsky, a real estate attorney from the Denver law firm Feldmann Nagel. “It could easily trap an unsuspecting buyer.”
Chapman also placed restrictions against mobile homes on the Signal Hill deed that would protect his ability to sell all 112 acres using the buyback provision. After all, who’d want a luxury home and a trailer park? “He thought some rich guy might buy Casa Barranca only if he could get all 112 acres,” says Cartwright. But according to Markofsky, Chapman didn’t use a legal description when creating the restrictions. “They may be unenforceable,” he says. “You could build almost anything anywhere.” Chapman disputes Markofsky’s analysis and insists the restrictions were properly recorded.
But perhaps the oddest part of the offer Chapman made to Koch didn’t involve real estate but the goodwill of his new pal Marston.
“For 30 years, Ed Marston has been my staunchest critic,” he wrote. “I now have a positive relationship with him. I know what Ed wants. I can mediate your Bear Ranch land exchange.” Chapman didn’t tell Marston about his offer to Koch.
After getting no reply from Koch, in June Chapman drafted another letter, this time more conciliatory, and forwarded a copy to Black Canyon National Park superintendent Connie Rudd. “I’m solidly pro-environment,” he wrote. “I’m a big fan of our parks and wilderness system. However if the other side is not willing to participate in finding solutions that are equitable to entrapped private landowners, then I’m more than willing to walk to the front of the line.”
BACK IN TELLURIDE, county and town officials are watching to see what happens with Chapman’s lawsuit against Telluride Ski and Golf. The case hinges on mining laws and historic use of Gold Hill Road up See Forever trail. If Chapman wins and begins plowing his road, TSG may be forced to buy him out. As for the standoff in Bear Creek, county commissioner Joan May thinks there’s little chance Chapman will be able to keep skiers and hikers from crossing his claims. “Let’s just say there’s a big precedent for historic trails remaining public,” she says.
Lately, Chapman and Curry have been taking out provocative full-page ads in the Daily Planet decrying the violation of their civil liberties, warning citizens that they’ve placed armed guards up in Bear Creek, and sending pictures of their presence to the press.
But Telluridians haven’t flinched. Increasingly, everyone from Bill Koch to the town’s ski bums have followed the government’s lead by refusing to engage with Chapman. Locals are still brazenly skiing and hiking across his land—and tearing down his NO TRESPASSING signs—but that’s about it.
“I think [Chapman and Curry] expected more public outrage,” says May. With access in question and tough high-country zoning laws, May thinks it’s doubtful anything will happen in Bear Creek for years, if ever.
Perhaps Chapman, too, is getting tired of this game. According to Marston, he hasn’t been immune from the real estate crash. “He doesn’t have as many options financially as one might think,” Marston says.
Last December, after 38 years in the business, Chapman deactivated his real estate license. He wants to focus on other interests, he says. Maybe he’ll spend more time at his cabin. That’s one property that has very little chance of changing hands.
“I don’t care how much money you try to give me,” Chapman told me. “There are some things in life that aren’t replaceable, and that’s one of them.”