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Mining claims in Weminuche Wilderness protected from development

Conservation group buys inholdings to preserve wilderness setting
Two mining claims in the Chicago Basin area have been transferred to a wilderness designation.

Two mining claims in the San Juan National Forest’s Weminuche Wilderness have been returned to a wilderness designation, the U.S. Forest Service announced this week.

In 2018, the Wilderness Land Trust purchased the two claims, near the Gem Lakes, in the area of Chicago Basin, from a private property owner.

The Wilderness Land Trust is a national conservation organization that purchases privately owned lands within designated and proposed wilderness areas to remove land conflicts, such as commercial use or development.

Kelly Conde, a lands specialist for the trust, said the goal is to work with willing sellers. So, every other year, the land trust sends a letter to property owners with wilderness inholdings asking if they’d be interested in selling.

“That’s how we bring most landowners to the table,” she said.

If the property owner is interested, the Wilderness Land Trust has a valuation conducted on the land, and offers the fair market value, and rarely, if ever, goes over the appraised value, Conde said.

Then, the Wilderness Land Trust sells the inholding to the Forest Service so it returns to federal protections. And in doing so, the land trust ensures a revolving fund for purchasing more lands within wilderness areas.

“Before we even think about acquiring (a parcel), we get in touch with the Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management and check to see if it’s a property they’d be interested in acquiring,” Conde said. “If they don’t want it, we most likely won’t pick it up.”

The Wilderness Land Trust contacted the San Juan National Forest about the mining claims, which total about 20 acres, in the Weminuche Wilderness, and the Forest Service agreed to purchase the parcels from the trust.

“Wilderness inholdings are a high priority acquisition when they become available,” the Forest Service said in a statement. “These acres become part of National Forest System lands. Also, because they are interior to the wilderness boundary they have become part of the Weminuche Wilderness and will be managed and protected accordingly.”

Conde said there’s actually a third mining claim, totaling about 9 acres, adjacent to the properties that is also slated to be transferred to the Forest Service, but issues over the title have caused a bit of a delay.

Conde said the property owners were listed as the Johnson’s, but she did not have additional information about the family.

The Wilderness Act was passed into law in 1964, and it stands as the strictest form of protection for wild areas, not allowing any forms of mechanized use. As of 2019, there were an estimated 111 million acres and 803 wilderness units in the United States.

The designation of wilderness areas, presented a problem for private property within the new protected areas. These claims of land are now commonly referred to as “inholdings.”

The Wilderness Land Trust estimates there are still 180,000 acres of private inholdings within federally designated wilderness areas in the lower 48 states, not including Alaska.

“Private land (inholdings) is one of the greatest threats to the globally unique (wilderness system),” the trust’s website says. “When private inholdings are developed, they essentially tear a hole in the fabric of surrounding wilderness.”

Mark Pearson, executive director of the conservation group San Juan Citizens Alliance, said many efforts have been made over the years to consolidate ownership of lands like mining claims to protect wilderness areas.

“It’s just a good way to eliminate any future headaches for the Forest Service and make sure the wilderness setting is protected,” Pearson said.

Indeed, Southwest Colorado has seen conflicts surrounding inholdings.

Years ago, Tom Chapman, a broker for a landowner with a private claim in the Weminuche Wilderness near Emerald Lake threatened to develop the land and use helicopters to access it. Despite the threats, nothing came of the situation.

More notably, though not on wilderness land, the proposed Village at Wolf Creek is an inholding. Because it is surrounded by national forest land, the developers have had issues obtaining road access to U.S. Highway 160.

Little by little, the Forest Service, along with conservation groups, have tried to piecemeal purchase inholdings.

In 2017, a 10-acre mining claim north of Needle Creek along the Animas River was protected as open space. And Pearson said more recently a parcel was protected near Highland Mary Lakes near Silverton.

“This way the Forest Service doesn’t have to deal with uses occurring on private mining claims that are incompatible with surrounding wilderness or requests for access,” Pearson said.


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