After decades of planning, purchasing and dreaming, the first phase of the Ophir Mining Roads Public Access Preservation Project land was finally transferred to the Forest Service Thursday.
With the purchase/donation of this 109-acre first phase, three building sites, one near and two up Water Fall Canyon, will forever be undeveloped. The Trust for Public Lands, or TPL, my facilitator, is an organization that acquires land for public use and enjoyment and then usually transfers it over to an interested governmental branch, in this case the Forest Service. TPL works with property that is used and enjoyed by the public and is not a nature preserve or wilderness organization and as the buyer in this deal is a perfect fit for this public access project.
My parents first brought me here from Minnesota in 1976 on a family vacation, stopped in Ouray, rented a Jeep and came over Imogene pass to discover Telluride and Ophir.
From there we came back nearly every year to motorcycle and jeep the trails, and we began to buy land. I now have approximately 1200 acres, almost all, of the mining claims in and around the Ophir Valley my parents and I have purchased since the mid 80s.
It started when I was told of a deal by realtor Bob Forsberg, where I could buy the entire holdings of John Wayne (the actor) and Donald Koll, who had planned to build a silver mine or ski area. The Hunt brothers and Telski dashed their dreams, and we bought them out. The path to preservation was conceived.
At first I thought I would do Forest Service trades to save the claims and roads that we had come to enjoy. I knew if homes were built the owners would soon complain and eventually lobby for restriction of any access near their houses. The answer was to buy up the home sites/mining claims, and trade them for more urban land the Forest service wanted to dispose of.
As I continued to acquire claims it became painfully obvious that trades of these larger parcels was going to be difficult. As a young man, my friends thought I was crazy buying land around that desolate mountain town. I then moved here with my wife, Dianne, and kids in 1998 and continued to be crazy.
When TPL showed up to work with Idrado on the Red Mountain project I saw the answer to my worries. As a cash buyer, a TPL sale is a relatively easy cash sale tied to a large donation. TPL plans to continue working with the project until all of my claims are purchased.
A problem has arisen, however, that has jeopardized the very idea of the project: public access to the mountains. When I first came here and started riding and jeeping the mining roads there were a lot of closed gates and “No Trespassing” signs all over the valley.
As we purchased the claims the gates and signs were removed, I thought this was great, that people of the U.S. could come and enjoy the beauty, history, and rugged terrain of our Uncompahgre National Forest. But now the gates are returning and access is more limited now than when I started.
The culprit, anti-access preservation groups pressuring the Forest Service into locking off these stone roads that have been used for over a century with no real harm to their surroundings. These trails have been shared for decades by sight seers and recreational users.
Starting with jeeps after World War II, motorcycles, mountain bikes, ATVs, hangliders and hikers soon followed. All these users were getting along on the roads until the anti-access crowd decided people were enjoying their National Forests a little too much.
All of the side roads in Ophir Valley have now been gated off to all but hikers. Not even mountain bikes. I have not allowed gates on my property, so some of the gates are up and away from the main road.
Ophir Pass Road itself was closed to any unlicensed motor vehicles and only after my threatening to pull my entire project was most of the pass road reopened for this use.
There are many reasons to leave some of these roads open to public travel. We all at some point will not be able to walk these Jeep trails, and there are also many disabled and injured who will never be able to go there. Many travelers coming through here don’t have the time, knowledge, or gear to hike in several miles. Many aren’t acclimated to climb thousands of feet when they live at or around sea level. Some are even injured soldiers who have paid a high price defending this very country. The roads are what makes this area a very special place, there are many areas in North America that you can look down upon as you fly over millions of square miles of mountains with no roads or trails that only a handful of people will ever travel through. Here though, people can traverse to the very peaks in a matter of hours and then have lunch in the valley towns which exists only because of upgraded mining roads.
These roads are irreplaceable; can you imagine trying to get a permit to build a road between Telluride and Ridgway today? And the cost to build, even if you could?
Without use, the roads will turn to trails as rock fall and trees quickly take back the cut incline. All this and more has to be considered before allowing these roads along with their history to disappear.
People with unlimited time that don’t have to work, locals who are still fit or bootleg usage of the roads after closure, and those that stay home and just lobby for closure as a feel good effort should not dictate over all the Americans that own and pay for the entire operation of our National Forests.
When I took the Forest Service managers around to mark new gate locations recently as they gated off still more trails around my project, I ask them if they saw evidence of damage on Forest land off the roads, they all admitted that there was none.
To finish the Ophir Valley Mining Roads Public Access Preservation Project transfer to public ownership of the remaining 1,100 acres, (50 or so home sites) all I am asking is that the Forest Service give me some document providing public access for all the uses that have historically been on these roads excluding Water Fall Canyon, Spring Gulch, Ferric Oxide Placer, and the St. Louis mine road.
To help gain a voice in the access closures that are taking place all around our area we have formed an organization of dedicated people called PAPA to help prevent this area and others from becoming scenery behind glass. PAPA stands for Public Access Preservation Association — please look us up at https://www.papatelluride.org.
We will fight for any type of limited impact recreational user that is being cut off from public land. We also work together with local clubs to maintain roads and trails and educate the users how to work together and be respectful. Together with the help of all of the people that lobbied congress for Forest Service funding, including John and Ken Salazar, Wayne Allard, Jim Isagar, the Ophir Valley preservation group, TPL, and my parents Ed and Flo Pauls with key financial support this project is close to completion.
We are now working on the final appraisals for the sale of the remainder of mining claims to the Forest Service and the access issues. Please join with us in any way you can to help preserve our paths of gold and silver. Remember, “Get involved or lose it.”