When private landowners in the Bear Creek drainage adjacent to Telluride ski area began complaining about backcountry skiers trespassing across their property, the U.S. Forest Service removed the three access gates between the ski area and the vast, snowy valley.

But the lack of gates didn't stop adventurous backcountry travelers from leaving the ski area. They just ducked under the rope. So on Friday, the Forest Service put back two of the gates.

"Taking the access points away didn't achieve the objectives we had hoped," Norwood District Ranger Judy Schutza wrote in a letter to San Miguel County leaders on Thursday. "It seems better to have a few access points than skiers ducking the rope wherever and whenever."

While thrilling the powder-seeking experts who venture into avalanche-prone Bear Creek, Schutza's decision did not please landowners in the drainage.

"Her decision proves (the) ... Forest Service has no concern whatsoever for the resulting and continuing liability of Bear Creek landowners, as she gives her official blessing for skiers to pass through these so-called gates — gates that require skiers to ski through private property," landowner Tom Chapman said.


Chapman announced in spring 2010 that he had acquired 103 acres of strategic mining parcels across the Bear Creek drainage and was banning ski passage across his land, which would essentially prevent all backcountry traffic in the high-alpine valley. (Chapman is known for eking increased value from remote mining parcels surrounded by public lands by proposing development on the islands of private property.)

While Chapman has tabled his plans for a ski area in the valley, he said he hopes to build a private home — of less than 1,000 square feet — in the middle of the Upper Bear Creek Basin using either a road or helicopter. He said he plans to apply for a building permit soon.

Schutza said many people complained when she removed the access gates and have been asking for their return.

"Seems like everything involving Bear Cr. is controversial," she wrote.

Some other landowners in Bear Creek, citing liability concerns, join Chapman in preventing ski access.

Chapman said Telluride ski area failed to enforce its policy that prohibits skiers from ducking under ropes. The gates, he said, allow the ski area and the Forest Service to shirk liability.

"So at the expense of continuing liability absorbed by Bear Creek landowners, the ski area and the Forest Service get off scot-free," Chapman said. "In fact, what (Schutza) is doing here, on behalf of (the) Forest Service, is promoting, aiding and abetting criminal activity: trespass."

On a big day, as many as 300 skiers ride Bear Creek, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said. Since the mid-1980s, eight people have died in avalanches in the area.

Masters laments that he is responsible for what is essentially a ski area, but, per Forest Service regulations, he cannot regulate, control or even sign routes in the dangerous terrain.

"The Forest Service hopes that by having gates, people will use the gates where there will be — or could be — signage explaining the dangers of leaving the ski area into the difficult area of Bear Creek," Masters said.

Local skiers celebrated the return of the gates. Even without the access points, traffic into Bear Creek continued, but with skiers adding to the inherent risk in the area by worrying about cutting ropes. They made hasty decisions, often skiing off the ridge without a one-at-a-time safety protocol, and they skied "with one eye over their shoulder," said Josh Borof, vice president of the Telluride Mountain Club.

"The closures disrupted the use of brilliant backcountry terrain and created some bad habits in the process," Borof said. "We would like to thank the USFS for coming to the conclusion that the closures have never worked."

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374, jblevins@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jasontblevins