SILVERTON, COLO. — US Highway 550 carves such a breathtaking course through the San Juan National Forest that it leaves tourists gasping.
Sheer cliffs. Mountain streams. At Red Mountain Pass, where the road peaks at 11,000 feet, visitors can stop to watch sheep grazing on a distant meadow and peer at an 1880s bunkhouse from the area's silver-mining days.
But there's trouble here in Colorado's alpine paradise. Several feet away from the cabins, Frank Baumgartner has planted an attention-getting sign: "FOR SALE: Good Commercial Building Site."
Mr. Baumgartner's plan to sell off parcels of land to developers within the San Juan National Forest has touched off a pitched debate here over the future of private holdings within public lands. At the heart of the debate: How to balance individual property rights against the public's desire to preserve the natural environment.
As wilderness becomes more scarce, developers are looking to snap up these islands of private land and build tourist attractions or million-dollar homes. Some plots are so remote the only access is by helicopter or snowmobile. Should the federal government step in and buy such holdings? And if so, at what cost?
"The [private] in-holding issue is a growing one that is extremely difficult for us to deal with," says Jerry Stokes of the US Forest Service. "When they threaten to develop trophy homes with helicopter access ... there's no way we can compete."
Casual visitors to a national park might assume all the land is federally owned. In fact, private lands may account for as much as 1 million acres within federal holdings. Put together, they would make a parcel 25 percent larger than Rhode Island.
Old mining claims
The situation arose because of the quirks of history. When the government began annexing Western wilderness for national forests in the 1890s, companies and individuals were already working parts of it. Anyone who could establish, say, a mining or homesteading claim could hold onto the land even after the surrounding land moved into federal hands. Those claims have created such a patchwork of private and public interests that they're difficult to manage.
"It's like someone threw Pickup Sticks," says Tim Sutton, who manages land and mineral rights for the Forest Service's Ouray Ranger District in Colorado. He unrolls a topographical map of the area around Red Mountain Pass, checkerboarded by a jumble of gray-shaded mining claims.
For example, a public hiking trail could cross several times into private lands, making it subject to closure by individuals. Those individuals wishing to bring a telephone line to their property, meanwhile, would have to apply for government authorization on every sliver of public land it crossed.
For decades, the Forest Service has tried to buy up private holdings - or trade land with individuals - to create more coherent chunks of federal property. Many of the private holdings are not easy to develop because they're isolated from roads, making the owners willing to sell.
But in 1989, a Kentuckian reportedly bought up a 240-acre private holding within the West Elk Wilderness Area for $1,000 an acre. Then he hired real-estate broker Tom Chapman to resell it to the Forest Service for $5,000 an acre. The Forest Service refused. By law, it has to buy at appraised fair-market value. (Critics say the federally approved appraisers routinely undervalue the property.)
So in 1992, Mr. Chapman and some partners reportedly bought the land for $4,000 an acre and announced plans to build multimillion-dollar homes on it. Without permission to road access, Chapman had a helicopter fly in building materials. When the first home was three-quarters complete, the Forest Service agreed to a trade: In exchange for his 240 acres, Chapman got 105 acres one mile from Telluride ski resort.
The trade set off protests that the government had caved in. Three years ago, Chapman and his partners sold off the Telluride land for $4.2 million - more than four times what they had paid five years earlier.
"It's extortion, in my opinion," says George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, a conservation group based in Missoula, Mont. "When you have folks who are going into a pristine area and insisting on doing developments that are incompatible with that preservation scheme, then I think the agencies need to have the power of [land] condemnation."
But to property-holders like Baumgartner, Chapman is a hero. "He got the best deal for his people on a land trade," he says. "Isn't that the American way?" Baumgartner has hired Chapman to broker his 1,600 acres around Red Mountain Pass, saying the Forest Service is offering too little for his land.
Baumgartner's blunt actions have touched off an escalating battle with local officials:
He's selling 10-acre lots, while county laws mandate a minimum 30-acre lot in mountain regions. He put up gates and closed jeep trails that the county claims as county roads. (The county has since taken down two of his gates.) And in a letter to the local newspaper, he publicized a timetable for demolishing historic structures on his land unless the county changed its laws.
"We didn't really think that was serious," says Bob Risch, chairman of a local citizens' group called the Red Mountain Project Task Force. But when a bulldozer showed up at the historic building atop the Yankee Girl mine shaft, some 30 locals asked Baumgartner to reconsider. He gave them a two-week reprieve. During that time, the county outlawed the destruction of historic structures without a permit.
Now Baumgartner is threatening to sue, while Ouray County Commissioner Alan Staehle contemplates a total ban on development in the mountains. "That's probably going too far," he says. But Baumgartner "has focused attention on what might happen in the alpine zone."
It's not clear whether such high-profile tactics will fetch Baumgartner a higher price for his land. This month, Congress will consider purchasing some 3,200 acres of other private land in the area. But observers say Baumgartner is asking for twice what his land is worth.
Undeterred, Baumgartner is sending out sales brochures. A Chicago hotel group is interested in the 20-acre piece of land now occupied by the bunkhouse and the cabin, he says, and sales are pending for other plots. "By July 1 next year, they'll all be gone," he vows.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society