July 28, 2004

HOT PROPERTIES: Private 'Inholdings' in Federal Preserves

by Jim Carlton
The Wall Street Journal

Schofield, Colo. -- Flanked by snow-capped peaks and straddling valleys of spruce, fir and aspen, the wilderness area know as the High Elk Corridor offers scenery of unsurpassed splendor. Accessible by a four-wheel-drive-only road, the land is almost all government-owned, seemingly untouched except by the forces of nature -- until a traveler comes upon a row of new log cabins, smack in the middle of federal wilderness.

"This is the beginning of back-country sprawl," says Will Rogers, staring at the cabins from a dust-covered van. Mr. Rogers is president of the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based group that is trying to stop this kind of development inside federal wilderness and other public lands. The problem is that the cabins are perfectly legal.

Partly to help settle the frontier, an 1872 federal mining law created "inholdings" -- tracts of private property situated in the middle of national forests or other public land -- thousands of which are sprinkled throughout the vast public lands of the American West.

Many of the properties, which range in size from 10 acres to 2,000 acres or more, have been passed down from generation to generation, as public lands have grown up around them. Most of the inholdings are so remote they were long deemed unfeasible for major development. But in the past few years, as real-estate prices began ratcheting up as hordes of city dwellers started pursuing mountain retreats, some of the inholdings have become valuable properties.

In many cases, there are few restrictions on the sites, which have guaranteed access through public land by road. Colorado law, which governs the privately owned inholdings in the state, allows up to one building per mining claim, with the average claim handed out in the 1800s amounting to about 10 acres. Conservationists say that even one house per 10 acres could equate to hundreds of homes in a pristine area.

In California, a development of multimillion-dollar homes has sprung up on an inholding inside the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. Called Mirada Estates, the development entails about 109 home sites on about 140 acres of private land.

To prevent a similar development in the High Elk Corridor, the Trust for Public Land so far has helped acquire about 1,000 acres of about 6,000 acres of private inholdings and hopes to buy up about 1,500 acres more.

Not everyone thinks development is a bad thing, though. Here in the High Elk, for instance, a handful of longtime property owners are holding out against the conservation push. The eight or so houses they and others have built are mostly modest, one- and two-story log cabins that the owners constructed as summer-time mountain retreats. No one has sold out to a big developer, so far, although some other property owners have plans to add cabins on their tracts as well.

One reason for their reluctance is an emotional pull to the land. For example, Fred Murray, a 69-year-old geologist from Tulsa, Okla., says he won't part with his approximately three acres of lots in one valley because the land has been in his family for nearly a century. His is one of the cabins that have sprung up there over the past 10 years, and he has also pushed for Gunnison County officials to pave the road from Crested Butte to make access easier. "They [the conservationists] are trying to push people like us out," says Mr. Murray, who has been coming to his family's wooded property in the High Elk since a toddler.

But Trust for Public Land officials say they fear too much cabin building, and road upgrading, would pave the way for bigger development, such as multimillion-dollar "ranchettes" that would ruin the wild nature of the corridor. So they are following the strategy, as they have around Yellowstone and other places around the West, of buying land to later sell back to the federal government.

In so doing, the trust has teamed with an unlikely partner, a ski resort, among others. In 1997, the Crested Butte Mountain Resort -- which recently changed ownership -- had joined with two local conservation outfits, the Crested Butte Land Trust and the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, to buy nearly half of the 106 buildable lots in Schofield, an 1800s mining camp that is now a ghost town. Previously, the resort had been criticized by environmentalists for its development around Crested Butte, itself a former mining town.

Part of the resort's concern is economic, because places like the High Elk are a major tourist attraction. Besides the scenery, the area is historically significant, having hosted not only legions of pick-and-shovel miners but also former President Ulysses S. Grant.

"If we started losing some of those special areas like the High Elk, it could really dry up our tourism economy," says Jim Starr, a Gunnison County commissioner who sits on the board of the Crested Butte Land Trust.

Indeed, Bill and Beverly Selby from Rogers, Ark., break their red Jeep after four-wheeling down a notoriously tough pass known as the "Devil's Punchbowl," and express shock at the prospect of the surrounding High Elk being bulldozed over. "If we could vote against development here, we would," says Mrs. Selby, who runs an embroidery shop with her husband.

By themselves, the local preservation groups around Crested Butte say they didn't have the financial wherewithal to protect the High Elk, which contains millions of dollars of inholdings. That changed, though, after a chance vacation visit to Crested Butte in 1999 by a Denver resident named Doug Robotham.

At the time, Mr. Robotham had recently been appointed head of Trust for Public Land's Colorado office, and recalls David Baxter, a friend with the Crested Butte Land Trust telling him about the threat to the High Elk. Having backpacked in the area as a boy, Mr. Robotham says he was astonished to find cabins when he hiked back out to investigate. "So I said, 'Let's look at conserving this whole valley,'" Mr. Robotham recalls, kicking a rock as he walks down a dirt road that winds through one of the valleys.

The High Elk was far more complex, though, than most of the 250 or so inholding transactions the trust negotiates each year. With about 260 property owners, the trust faced having to negotiate potentially dozens of deals. So the trust, in 2000, used digital mapping to focus on the lots they considered the most likely to be developed, because of their terrain and other factors.

In all, the groups think they will need about $6.5 million to make all their acquisitions. So far, they have raised about $3 million from public and private sources, and are using the money to persuade owners to part with their properties. Some have needed little convincing, because, they, too, want the land preserved.

"It was the family's desire to keep the land pristine," Judy J. McGill, a real-estate broker in nearby Crested Butte, Colo., says of a Texas-based family's decision to let her sell 40 acres of High Elk land to the trust for $125,000.

Federal land managers say they welcome such deal making as a way to help keep the backcountry wild. U. S. Forest Service officials, for example, say they are long wanted to protect the High Elk, in part, because the corridor sits between two wilderness areas: The Raggeds and Maroon Bells-Snowmass. Foresters worry that too much development could disrupt wildlife migration patterns, such as for the plentiful elk, as well as soil clear-running streams.

But the government hasn't had the time or resources to try negotiating for the multitude of land transfers needed here. "They [the Land Trust for Public Land] really did us a huge favor," says Martha Ketelle, supervisor of the local White River National Forest, "in terms of taking on this project."