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There have been several recent John L. Morris sightings up in the Fryingpan Valley, a remote area northeast of Aspen in the wilds of Pitkin County. Locals have seen Morris driving his sport utility vehicle up the valley and hanging around his three-cabin compound just outside Basalt. But what everybody wants to know is what he's doing over at the hundred-year-old Fryingpan River Ranch, a modest, rustic resort near a popular fishing hole that Morris purchased for a quarter of a million dollars back in April 1997.
Morris only bought the buildings in the deal. But he's hired a Denver consulting firm, Western Land Group Inc., to try to arrange a land exchange with the U.S. Forest Service so that he can also own the 243 acres that the ranch stands on and leases from the government. He plans to trade a piece of land he's gotten off the open market.
Morris made millions through his mail-order fishing-accessory company, Bass Pro Shops Inc., headquartered in Springfield, Missouri. But he's also branched out into upscale fishing resorts for people willing to plunk down big bucks for a weekend of angling. So far, Bass Pro has opened resorts in Missouri and Florida, and many Fryingpan locals think that Morris is trying to expand into Colorado. At least that's what Bass Pro representatives and its consultants from Western Land Group said when they pitched the idea to members of the residents' ornery local association, the Fryingpan Caucus, at the local fire station in April. The locals, who want their wilderness to stay wild, thought the proposal smelled fishy.
Forest Service officials seem gung-ho about the idea, but some Pitkin County officials, already used to dealing with big money in high-priced Aspen, aren't too happy.
"We're not real clear about what Morris wants to do up there," says Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland. "He hasn't been fully forthcoming with his plan, but we suspect that he's looking at something more upscale than what's been there previously. And a luxury resort is something of an unfamiliar problem for the citizens of the Fryingpan. You could have a situation where traffic increases with Range Rovers all over the place. Then you've got the social-service aspects that come along with a resort employing 85 amigos working for four dollars an hour."
What looks like a land-swap squeeze play really annoys not only the Fryingpan residents, but Ireland as well.
"Maybe [the Bass Pro people] think they have some political contacts to make the land-exchange deal happen," says Ireland. "What Morris is trying to do is the oldest trick in the West, though. You get ahold of the water hole and then you control all the land around it. In this case, Morris wants to get this riverfront property along the road, and then everything beyond that would become his de facto backyard. The Forest Service land essentially becomes your domain, because nobody else can get to it without going through your property."
Fryingpan locals have a more succinct way of describing how Morris is trying to get his deal done.
"Johnny sent his monkeys down to do his dirty work," says Dale Coombs, a Fryingpan resident. "They thought they were coming into some backwoods where a bunch of inbred hillbillies with a top IQ of sixty were going to be convinced that he was on to a good idea. They got a big surprise."
Adam Poe of Western Land Group, along with Morris's Bass Pro spokesman and a Forest Service representative, had the unpleasant task of addressing the hostile crowd in April.
"We walked into 67 people who wanted to heat up the tar and prepare the feathers," recalls Poe. "Our intention was to get some early feedback on the proposal, and instead we walked right into a buzz saw. We had no inkling that we'd get this kind of opposition. There was a lot of emotional energy, and some people jumped right in assuming the worst and fanned some fires without any real basis. There was a real 'fuck 'em' mentality, and I guess a lot of that is understandable." Beyond Morris's statement to him that he wants to create a "fishing experience," Poe admits he doesn't know what the millionaire's specific plans are in the Fryingpan.
And Fryingpan residents were looking for specifics. Dave Lamont, leader of the 240-member Fryingpan Caucus, says proponents of the land exchange didn't answer any questions posed to them and were "totally lost." But more upsetting to Lamont and the other community members who showed up at the meeting was the absence of Morris himself. (Morris, through spokesmen, refused Westword's request for an interview.)
Morris spokesman Martin Mac Donald explains that his boss hasn't been able to meet with any of the Fryingpan contingent because of a booked schedule. But he says that the locals have Morris pegged wrong; he points to a page-long list of conservation awards and philanthropic donations as proof.
"John was attracted to the natural rustic beauty of the area," says Mac Donald. "It's been well-documented that John has a real love for the land, and he wants to keep the integrity of what's there right now. He wants to make a few improvements just to make the buildings better, maybe add four or five cabins just like the ones out there now. What's there is what'll be there. So, contrary to what the Caucus is speculating, John isn't planning on building a big resort. We have no plans for a large-scale development."