A handshake agreement made decades ago, lies at the heart of a standoff between the owners of a private mining claim above the Rainbow Trail on Methodist Mountain, and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The USFS manages the rest of the forest land and has a road to the towers on top of the mountain; one way in–one way out. At issue is the balance between private property rights and access to critical public safety infrastructure.
Mining Claims are Strange
The mining claim (July 26, 1866: Mineral Patent-Lode (14 Stat. 251) known as the Lost Charlie Ross, was sold in 1957, and a handshake deal between the private and public property entities held good for decades. But it was never formalized with an easement agreement, even when the family of the current owner bought it in 1976.
Mining claims are private holdings within the forest. According to the Mining act of 1872, they are not governed by USFS laws. When Colorado became a state in 1876, it was determined that Colorado laws applied to all lands that had not already been designated as federal lands. In 1906 the USFS was created and it started laying out national forests. Mining claims are considered county land; bound by county zoning regulations, even though the land patents existed before the state was created.
After decades of generally cooperative communications between the USFS and the claim’s private property owner, who visits the heavily-wooded claim for hunting, things got prickly.
The Texas private owner, who turned the property into a family trust led by son Brian Bay, installed a locked gate across the road, making access to the dead-end road for the Forest Service or the utility tower owners, a matter of continuous negotiation. But access did happen, even if the USFS had to hike in.
On the terrifying night in 2019 when the Decker Fire topped the mountain, causing the evacuation of all Salida homes south of U.S. 50, the cabin on the claim was lost. After the Decker Fire, things got downright nasty. There is apparently an undertone of blame that the county and the USFS couldn’t save the cabin the night the fire came over the mountain (it was above the evacuation area.). In the aftermath, Bay plunked a locked gate down on the forest service road (on USFS land, not on the family’s claim) and has refused entry to all.
Contacted for comment, Sheriff John Speeze says that because it involves private property, it’s a civil matter, not a criminal one, so he can’t do anything about it.
U.S. Forest Service Regional Director Jim Pitts admitted that at this time, “It’s complicated. There is no legal easement and so far the USFS has been unable to negotiate a contract. Yes, it restricts good access to the infrastructure at the communications site.”
AVV called Bay at his Sealy, TX insurance agency for comment, and on the fifth call, he answered. When invited to make a comment about the situation, Bay responded with highly inappropriate remarks and threatened to sue AVV if it published anything about the standoff.
Pitts said he has spent the past four years attempting to negotiate an easement, with no success. At the moment, tower owners and utilities riding those towers only have access by flying up via helicopter. They took three trips last week to do maintenance to those critical towers. Helicopter transport is not cheap; it costs $6,000 to get a helicopter from Denver up here for a maintenance trip, which most smaller communications companies can not afford.
A Multi-million Dollar Public Safety Risk
The tower site which Pitts refers to as a communications and emergency infrastructure services area at the top of Methodist Mountain is on U.S. Forest Service land. But calling them just communication towers is too simplistic … this has the outline of what could become a public safety nightmare for millions of mountain west residents and hundreds of communities across the west.
According to Dave Novotney, Secretary of the Methodist Fremont Tower User Group, there are around 20 organizations that have communications towers on both Methodist and Fremont Mountain, a tower arrangement that work as a system. But that doesn’t begin to represent all the hardware on the top of that mountain — dozens of other communications, public safety, and utility assets ride the towers, representing millions of dollars of equipment that must be maintained.
“The Bays own property on roughly the lower third of the access road going up the mountain. If you go up CR 108 past the parking lot for the Rainbow Trail, you’ll see the gate,” said Novotney. “I’ve been going up there 25-30 years … they have always been open to allowing passage to work on equipment. Until now.”
According to Novotney, “I’ve been notified by the Sheriff that anyone found on Bay’s property will be arrested for trespassing.”
The list of infrastructure entities at the end of the USFS road on the top of Methodist reads like a “who’s-who” of high tech: Verizon, Colorado Central Telecom, Xcel Energy are there. So are television stations, several radio stations, and Rocky Mountain PBS.
But entertainment and personal communications are not all that is atop Methodist Mountain.
The towers include the State of Colorado communications network for the entire Arkansas River Valley down to Alamosa. Chaffee Fire and Dispatch radio is there. The U.S. Forest Service radio system is there. So are the towers for the Western Area Power Administration; the federal organization that manages the power grid for the western U.S.
This is clearly a standoff between private property rights and the public good. While some may think that the big question is “Why was there never an easement recorded for this road? The real question may be; “Why is this enormous public safety issue being allowed to continue?
According to the Tower User Group President Mark Young, the safety risk now, without access, is serious.
“This is way too much power in the hands of one family. The state public safety alert system is off the top of that mountain – if that signal goes off, they will have difficulty responding to anything in Chaffee or Fremont or beyond. In the Decker Fire, the fire outran the USFS and they had to set off a public safety message to evacuate every home south of U.S. 50.”
Young says that what happened last year in California haunts him. “I went through this in California, and saw it in real-time. By the time they got around to the protocol to evacuate 45 residents of Potter Valley, those 45 or 50 people died in the fire, it was so fast-moving. When you talk about the emergency communications network it only works if there are towers to make it work – to send signals to. You have something like this with access blocked – the danger is the emergency alert may not be operated off the tower system.”
He is careful in pointing out the danger of a single private entity essentially hold hostage the tower access for the U.S. power grid, adding that the Department of Homeland Security has a vested interest in access to the top of Methodist Mountain.
Young, who has built towers for the western power grid for the Department of Energy says that it would be good for county leaders to understand the U.S. high transmission towers for the southwest and their connection to the nation’s hydroelectric dams. “There’s the Poncha Springs substation. The towers connect to the power through the San Luis Valley and way beyond, to Phoenix, Lake Powell, Blue Mesa, and beyond. That’s a little bit of a public safety urgency,” he says simply.
The Backroad Solution
The Decker Fire actually uncovered a solution, but in true federal style, it was revealed then removed.
“During the Decker Fire the USFS widened their road on the front of the mountain to get in dozers and fire trucks, but after the fire, they did what they always do; if they damage private property….they go and restore it,” said Young. He says he realizes that “counties don’t like to do any eminent domain things.”
But he adds, “During the fire, the USFS also built an alternate dozer road up the southwestern side of the mountain in the Villa Grove area for access. Right after the fire, they took that out too.”
He says that if the Villa Grove route were reopened, it would give the tower users year-round access. (Right now they can’t get up the front road through the Bay property four months of the year.) “We could patrol it easier, we could bury an underground power line down that road, to underground power. The catch is, the route of that alternate road is on a proposed state roadless area on federal lands, and they have been unwilling to grant an exemption to this because of the gravity of the situation. (Two states, Colorado and Idaho, have passed state laws that they can designate state roadless areas on federal lands.)”
“The Forest Ranger Dan Dallas (who oversees the Rio Grande National Forest) continues to make additional designations to that area that make it more and more difficult, if not impossible under federal law to put a road through that area, knowing full well the important and critical issues involved in the Methodist Mountain site.”
“Our intent at this point is we have no other choice but to solicit the assistance of the full Colorado delegation of seven Congressional Representatives and two Senators to conduct an investigation into the USFS refusing to entertain the offer of building a south road and an exemption to the roadless designation,” Young adds.
He points out how often power has been out on top of Methodist just in the past year, impacting large swaths of the county, with an economic impact. “So [Bay] took the road, put up the gate, and just in the past year we’ve lost power 8 to 10 times up there. One year we lost power to that site for a whole week in November. Yes, we have propane backups, but we couldn’t get through for three weeks, much less in the middle of winter. Now, we are running out of propane and we have no way to get our trucks up there to make it through the next winter.”
He added that in addition to the internet providers, radio stations, and TV stations, and safety communications, that even the “ham” emergency networks use those towers. “When everything else fails they call the hams … and their stuff goes through both those mountains. You name it….that site has it. The magnitude of the scale of what this site provides to infrastructure and public safety is of enormous proportions. Millions of people are impacted by this site; it’s critical that we maintain the integrity of this site. When we lose communication, lives are at risk. I’ve been on those calls listening to people that we can’t get to. We are setting ourselves up to kills dozens or hundreds of people because some bureaucrats can’t sign a document. Jim Pitts has been helping in every way that he can possibly help to get this done. He has been a godsend, but he’s got counterparts that seem hellbent — not on saving lives, but on creating roadless areas.
“In many people’s minds, this has become so critical that there is a group of people who feel like they should take the law in their own hands to save lives. I’ve been a paramedic for 30 years — I’ve spent the last four days trying to find a legal solution to this. We are working every angle we can work to come up with a solution.”
Featured image: Infrastructure on Fremont Peak with Methodist Mountain smoking in the background. The two peaks act as a coordinated infrastructure system. Photo courtesy of the Methodist/Fremont Tower Users Group.