'Temporary pain in the ass'
Sounds of construction in Chicago Basin soon to disappear, landowner says

'Temporary pain in the ass'

Members of the public have expressed concern about the impacts of a cabin under construction in Chicago Basin, a popular area in the Weminuche Wilderness. The area is especially critical habitat for big game wildlife, like mountain goats, which are pictured here in Chicago Basin./ Photo by Anne-Marie Mee

Jonathan Romeo - 11/09/2023

If you were hiking in Chicago Basin this past summer and heard the sounds of chainsaws, possibly even a helicopter, juxtaposed to the sounds of nature, you’re not alone.

“I’m not surprised people are asking what’s going on,” Nick Glidden, District Ranger for the San Juan National Forest’s Columbine Ranger District, said. “I know it sounds like a weird deal, and I wouldn’t say it’s common, but it does happen.”

While the sounds of machines may seem a bit out of place in the popular recreation area, located in the Weminuche Wilderness north of Durango, it is not, however, a sign of any wrongdoing. And in this case, it should only be temporary.

The Weminuche, of course, is protected by the Wilderness Act, which was passed in 1964 to protect the country’s most wild and remote places. It remains one of the strictest types of public lands management tools and prohibits any mechanized use, established roads or structures.

Today, there are nearly 112 million acres of designated Wilderness in the United States.

However, these areas are far from undiscovered and untouched. Throughout Western history, many people had private property, mining claims and other stakes within areas that predated the creation of the Wilderness Act. These lands are called “inholdings” and have preexisting rights of private property.

Fast forward to the present day and the situation at Chicago Basin.

Chicago Basin is a popular destination for outdoors-people, especially those looking to summit the surrounding 14ers. Accessing the area requires an arduous multi-mile hike or horseback ride from trailheads near Purgatory, Vallecito or Missionary Ridge, or you could take the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad to shorten the journey by 10 miles or so.

The property in question is an old, 17-acre mining claim that was bought by the multi-generational Durango family, the Yeagers, in 1996 from the previous landowner.

In an interview with The Durango Telegraph, Ron Yeager said he has been working on building a cabin for years. But it wasn’t until the past couple years, in which time he retired, that he has been able to make some serious progress, which explains why people are hearing construction.

Yeager received permission from the U.S. Forest Service to transport chainsaws and other mechanized tools into his property by horseback (which Forest Service representatives confirmed).

From there, anything Yeager does on his land follows the regular rules of private land – i.e. he does not need permission or authorization to use chainsaws or land a helicopter.

“Everything I’m doing is legal,” he said.

Yeager, now 72, said construction of the cabin is almost complete, so the sounds of chainsaws will soon disappear. And, he said the property is just for friends and family, and will be passed on to his grandchildren. He said there are no plans for any future resort-type development.

“It’s a temporary pain in the ass for everyone to listen to, but it’s only temporary, and it’s about done,” he said.

As for the helicopters, Yeager said just one helicopter flew into the property this past summer around Aug. 14 to help bring in a friend who was physically unable to make the journey by horseback or on foot. In the future, helicopters may be used to help people access the property, but only a couple times a year, Yeager said. (He added that a portion of his property was cleared for a landing zone and said no equipment will be flown in via helicopter.)

“I haven’t even (flown in by helicopter) yet, because I’m not too old or feeble enough, and I still own three good mules,” he said. “As long as I can do that, all is good. But when that turns to sh**, I’ll hire the helicopter, good heavens.”

The Forest Service’s Glidden said the agency sent wilderness rangers this summer to monitor the site and make sure the Yeagers weren’t conducting work beyond their private property boundaries.

“At the end of the day, these are valid, existing rights,” Glidden said. “The only piece we authorize is moving chainsaws through wilderness areas.”

Ever since Yeager acquired the property in 1996, he said he has faced pushback on any potential development on the land.

“I don’t want to cause any trouble with anyone,” he said. “I’ve been hassled since the day I bought that (property). I’d just like to go up some day and enjoy the goddamn thing.”

While all the activity on Yeager’s inholding is legal, it highlights the challenge these types of properties present in trying to balance private property rights with the preservation of the wilderness character (looking at you, Village at Wolf Creek).

Margosia Jadkowski, Director of Marketing and Communications for The Wilderness Land Trust, said the organization was founded more than 30 years ago to help acquire inholdings and remove any risks to wilderness areas and complications with management policies.

She said the estimated 180,000 acres of inholdings throughout the United States (not including Alaska) are not protected and can be mined, logged and developed for any kind of use, including resorts. All this poses a risk to waterways, wildlife and public access, as well as noise and light pollution. 

As a result, the trust has acquired 55,000 acres of inholdings through fair market sales with willing landowners, which ultimately are transferred to federal agencies. The organization is active in Southwest Colorado, protecting 12 parcels totaling 235 acres over the years.

“People see a wilderness designation and think the area is totally protected,” she said. “And it’s not.”

San Juan Citizens Alliance Executive Director Mark Pearson said that most of the inholdings in Chicago Basin were acquired and transferred into federal management. He noted that development can disturb wildlife and have other negative consequences.

“When (Yeager) first got it, I remember the fear he was going to build a cabin up there,” he said. “It’s about the only (inholding) still left up there that’s private; just about everything else has been acquired by the Forest Service.”

Yeager said there’s a long history of mining in Chicago Basin – a history that’s seldom told. The trail, for instance, used to be a county road for packing gear into mines. Use of his property, which will only amount to a few times during the summer, is just another change.

“I’ve watched what that property was from back in the day and what it is today, and it’s entirely different,” he said. “But that’s evolution.”