Shadow of a Trout
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."
The locals aren't biting.
"The Bass Pro representatives made the comment about Morris's commitment to and passion for the valley," says resident Kim Reid. "They say he's won awards for conservation, but we don't need him up here 'conserving.' The bottom line is that I still don't know who he is. He could knock on my door and I wouldn't have a clue it was him. As far as I'm concerned, the guy is a snake. He knew what he was doing from the moment he bought the ranch. It's called M-O-N-E-Y, and he sees this area as an opportunity to make a load of it."
Dave Lamont, Dale Coombs and Jim Crowley are driving a pickup truck around the acreage Morris has his eye on. They're all wearing cowboy hats, cowboy boots and a lot of turquoise jewelry. The land around Fryingpan Ranch is lush: three small rivers, a lake, and evergreens and aspens marching to the horizon. Crowley has lived every one of his 79 years in the Fryingpan Valley. His kids represent the fourth generation of Crowleys here. As the truck creeps along the treacherous roads west of Basalt, Crowley alternately dozes off and tells disaster stories about points of interest along the way. There was the time he almost froze to death down in a ravine while looking for some lost horses. Over here is the cliff that a Colorado Midland train went over. There's the meadow where a plane crashed. Crowley hopes that John Morris isn't going to bring the next disaster to the valley.
What the Fryingpan residents fear is that Morris will take the fishing ranch and turn it into a ritzy resort, as he has done with other Bass Pro properties such as Dogwood Canyon, a component of Bass Pro's sprawling Big Cedar compound in Ridgedale, Missouri. Ken Midkiff, program director for the Ozark Chapter of the Sierra Club, is familiar with Morris's work.
"What they're proposing out there in Colorado sounds a lot like what they did out here in Dogwood Canyon," says Midkiff. "Bass Pro bought the resort from a private individual, but there were Forest Service holdings on it. We didn't object to the subsequent land swap too much at the time, because the Forest Service assured us of good stewardship, and all in all, the trade seemed pretty fair. But at the time, we had no idea what they were going to do with the land."
A letter sent by the Missouri Department of Conservation to the U.S. Forest Service dated August 29, 1993, paints an ugly picture of what happened to Dogwood Canyon after Bass Pro developed it: "The main valley of Dogwood Canyon has now been altered to a totally artificial state...The stream has been re-channeled throughout most of its length. At least seven large, concrete bridges now cross the small stream. Pipes now carry water up steep hillsides to create artificial waterfalls. Caves were created by removal of soil where none existed prior. High-pressure water hoses were used to scour and denude bluffs and holes in rock ledges."
"What they did," says Midkiff, "is rearrange the canyon to suit their own commercial needs. They created a Disneyland under the guise of outdoor appreciation and education, and they totally destroyed Dogwood Canyon in the process. Rather than having people going out into the wilderness, Bass Pro created a theme park designed by architects and developers for a large corporate profit. There's nothing natural about it. And if the people out there in Colorado aren't staying on top of this, that's what they're going to get, too."
Bass Pro spokesman Mac Donald says those "improvements" were made only on a "ribbon" of the 8,000-acre parcel in Missouri. "The Fryingpan Ranch is not going to be like Dogwood Canyon," says Mac Donald. "Are there going to be some parallels? Yes. An example would be the world-class trout fishing. And Dogwood Canyon, like the Fryingpan Valley, is an absolutely gorgeous location. Ninety-eight percent of people would say it's the most beautiful thing they've ever seen. Yes, there's been some construction on the property, but we created a wonderful trout population." Trout aren't native to Missouri. Bass Pro stocked its resorts in that state with imported fish.
Bass Pro also stocks its resorts with more than fish. It has snagged at least one ex-government official. Jerry Presley, director of the Missouri Department of Conservation in 1993, when the letter blasting Bass Pro's Dogwood Canyon project emerged from that agency, now works for Bass Pro. After Westword made inquiries to Bass Pro about the Fryingpan project, Presley called the paper to plead his company's case.
He says he doesn't recall the letter to the Forest Service regarding Dogwood Canyon, but he admits that the description of the landscape changes at the resort are accurate. Presley says his primary job at Bass Pro is to promote the company's environmental programs nationwide.
"Honestly, John is trying to make money in the process," Presley acknowledges. But his attitude toward Morris's projects clearly has changed since 1993: Presley insists that Morris "probably will make some improvements, but he'll do it judiciously and tastefully. My experience working with him in the past leads me to believe that John will be up front with all his plans. He's never sneaked anything in the back door as long as I've known him. But he needs to enhance the resources that provide his livelihood for him."
Here in Colorado, the land exchange between Bass Pro and the Forest Service has been stalled because the first piece of land Western Land Group wanted to swap, which was also in Pitkin County, was snatched up by another buyer, and Adam Poe says he's working on another deal. In the meantime, the Fryingpan River Ranch, which has been open for years, is closed this summer. Locals think that Bass Pro intends to use the downtime to make improvements to the buildings, despite the fact that any improvements it makes on the existing structures technically belong to the Forest Service.
"I can't answer why Morris would go ahead and buy the buildings on that property without a solid exchange plan," says county commissioner Ireland.
And the county commissioner has other problems with Bass Pro's proposed venture. "At the meeting with the Fryingpan Caucus," Ireland recalls, "the Bass Pro people talked about how their project was going to provide employment for single moms and teenagers after school. But if you're running a high-end resort, you're going to be using indigent labor, not kids looking to make a couple bucks after school. Dave Lamont isn't going to be out there doing the work, I can tell you that much."
Ireland is also concerned that if Morris gets the acreage around the Fryingpan Ranch, it could attract other investors with similar ideas. "It feeds on itself," he says. "Next thing you know, the county gets hit up for more police protection, fire departments on call to put out the blaze when someone's $800,000 cabin catches fire, and better roads to get up the valley. Pretty soon you've got a roomful of millionaires saying that they're entitled to these kinds of services. The fact is that a million-dollar house only pays Pitkin County $600 a year."
Out in the wilderness, approaching Fryingpan River Ranch in their pickup, Lamont, Coombs and Crowley aren't thinking about infrastructure ramifications or social-service problems. They're just suspicious about why a man would plunk down $250,000 if he didn't have intentions of trying to hook something big. Is he going to fish or cut bait, they wonder? They decide to drop in on Morris to see what he's up to.
Driving down the dirt road leading to the ranch, they spot a young buck standing brazenly off to the side of the road. Lamont stops the truck. The deer stands its ground. "Must be waiting for ol' Johnny to come around with the popcorn," Crowley cracks. "Wish I had my rifle."
The trio continues down to the ranch's parking lot, where a couple of trucks sit alongside a mammoth Suburban with a camouflage paint job and Missouri license plates. "That's so Johnny can sneak up on the fish," Coombs deadpans. But aside from the trucks in the lot, there's no sign of activity around the main lodge or the surrounding cabins. Definitely no John Morris in sight. Lamont turns the pickup around and drives it back up to the paved road. He pulls off on a gravel Forest Service road about a mile up the valley from the ranch.
From this vantage point, the men point out how public access to the trails and streams around the ranch, currently unrestricted, could be cut off if Morris gets his way. "Hell, I can't blame the guy for wanting the property," says Coombs, who managed the Fryingpan Ranch from 1976 to 1981. "It's gorgeous. But I can blame the Forest Service for trying to give it away. If this turns private like they're trying to do, you can start at the top of the valley and crap it up all the way down."
The Forest Service's Paul Zimmerman says that the denizens of the Fryingpan may be jumping the gun.
"It isn't unusual for people living next to a piece of land proposed for exchange to get all bent out of shape," says Zimmerman. "They come up with all these concerns. Some are real, some are imagined and some are manufactured. When the problems are real and could have adverse effects, we need to back off. But if it's all hype, we need to understand that and do what's best for the taxpayers. Neighbors always want their peace and quiet. They want the Forest Service land as their backyard. But the fact is that it's not our responsibility to make everyone happy. We're here to manage federal land."
Although Kevin Riordan, the local Forest Service manager in the Fryingpan area, says the Bass Pro land exchange is "pretty well stalled at this time," he adds that it is still a high priority.
The Forest Service is eager to unload the Fryingpan land because it falls under what Zimmerman describes as the "pain in the ass category" as far as administrative work goes--despite the fact that the lease calls for the Forest Service to get a cut of the ranch's gross operating revenue. Riordan says the lease usually brings in between $15,000 and $20,000 annually. (Because the ranch is closed for business this summer, Bass Pro will pay only $150, according to Riordan.)
County commissioner Ireland and others couldn't care less about the Forest Service's desire to make its own life easier. "It's the law of fixtures," says Mick Ireland. "Just the same as if you're a renter and screw in a bookshelf. The landlord gets it when you move out. [The land exchange] makes sense from an administrative point of view because it consolidates the land and the owner. But from a public-land-use point of view it makes no sense at all. It's destructive."
John L. Morris's hired guns naturally don't feel that sense of impending doom. Adam Poe of Western Land Group likes the Forest Service's reasoning. "This parcel of land has basically become an administrative hassle," says Poe. "The Forest Service has essentially become a landlord trying to collect rent and make sure that the tenants are keeping the place up. We were actually approached by the person who sold the buildings to Morris to try and work an exchange out." Now the company's combination of brokers and salesmen are working on Morris's behalf.
Morris is not their only client, and Western Land Group doesn't exactly work in a tent in the wilderness. From its office in a modest residential home west of Washington Park, the company has carved itself a niche by helping to arrange land exchanges all over the country. The group literally wrote the book on modern land swaps, penning for Congress the Federal Land Exchange Facilitation Act in 1988. It just completed a transaction in which the towns of Frisco and Breckenridge got fifteen parcels of Forest Service land in exchange for private land that the feds plan to use for public recreation. It's also working on an Interstate 90 deal outside of Seattle involving a parcel of close to 100,000 acres.
The company was founded in 1982 by former Colorado state senator Tom Glass, who, according to Poe, had extensive knowledge of how to deal with public lands. The firm operates as a consultant and is paid by the hour. It grossed over $700,000 in 1994, the last year for which figures were available. And there's no shortage of trades to make.
Poe spreads out a map on the company's dining-room table. "After the Louisiana Purchase, everything on the map was green," Poe says, rolling up the sleeves of his shirt. "It was all public land." On the map, areas shaded green represent Forest Service lands, and private parcels are white. "What we've ended up with is a patchwork quilt, and a lot of these patterns don't make any sense. Either they're inaccessible to the public or they've lost their original character. But since the Forest Service isn't allocated a lot of money by Congress to buy back some of these lands, the best way is to acquire land through exchanges. Our job is to facilitate these transactions. We go out and get parcels off the open market for our clients so that they can exchange them for land that the Forest Service wants off its hands. Some people might say that we're glorified real estate agents. The truth is, we're more along the lines of mediators, because it's more about reaching an agreement with all the parties involved than anything else. It can be a brain-damaging process."
That line of reasoning is just so much bunkum to Janine Blaeloch of the Western Land Exchange Project, a watchdog group critical of the current Federal land-exchange policy. The real damage, she contends, is done to the public.
"Land-exchange groups know what the Forest Service wants, and they work to meet those desires," says Blaeloch from her Seattle office. "The Forest Service doesn't have the budget to be proactive, so instead they're reactive to deals presented to them by private parties. The damaging thing is that the public is supposed to get equal value. The Forest Service has a tendency to confuse equal acreage with equal value. They don't take into account the commercial profit that can be realized on the piece of land they're swapping. They don't even look at potential."
Poe maintains that decisions are left up to the Forest Service's managers. "They've got to weigh the benefits and the recreational value of the land," says Poe. "But it's very difficult to put a dollar figure on those sort of things. You can't say how valuable a mountain bike trail is to the public."
But while the Forest Service scratches its head, Blaeloch says, developers like Morris are crunching numbers and figuring out their bottom line. She adds that since developers involved in a land exchange foot most of the bills for the environmental studies necessary before approval of a plan, the Forest Service--though not necessarily the public--benefits from working with them.
"The Forest Service is in danger of being axed every day by Congress," says Blaeloch. "So when you have someone coming in with a deal and some money they're willing to throw in, it creates employment for years to come. With the private party essentially paying the salaries, it becomes a built-in budget incentive. Theoretically, the Forest Service can back out of the deal at any time if the environmental analysis goes bad or the public starts screaming loud enough, but they never do because they realize who's buttering their bread. It's human nature to assist someone who's paying your salary. So a relationship gets formed, and the end result is that the Forest Service is bending to the will of developers. They see it as a way to stay employed and maybe get some desirable land in the process. It's utterly ludicrous."
Getting sold out by the Forest Service is exactly what the citizens of the Fryingpan Valley fear.
"The Forest Service is just too damn lazy to look after this place," says Crowley. "It should have laughed Morris out the door and told him not to come back right from the get-go. But the people working for the Service have developed an attitude that it's Forest Service land, not public land. They talk to us like it's a privilege for us to be on it at all. The whole darn thing is cockeyed."
Adding to Crowley's frustration is the fact that he says he can't get any straight answers from the Forest Service about the exchange's status. Although local forester Kevin Riordan has told Fryingpan residents that the deal is on hold, Crowley doesn't buy it. He dismisses Riordan as "a small fry" and shares the opinion of many other locals that the deal is being pushed by people higher up on the food chain. They think that Morris is pulling strings in Washington, D.C.
"The whole land-exchange process, in general, is extremely complex," says Blaeloch. "And since the process is partially hidden by design, it becomes very difficult to get a handle on. Appraisals of the parcels in question are not available to the public until after the deal goes through. And that's really the central factor in determining if it's a fair deal."
Although the Forest Service has appraisers on staff, Riordan says, they're swamped. As a result, the agency often has to turn to independent appraisers to keep up. The regional forest manager, in this case Lyle Laverty, ultimately has to give the green light.
The Forest Service just wrapped up nine large exchanges in the Coal Basin area of Pitkin County in which it acquired close to 6,000 acres; the deal took almost three years to complete.
Laverty acknowledges that he knows little about the particulars of the Fryingpan situation--or even land exchanges in general. He relies on Zimmerman and Riordan to work out the details. But Morris's company is too aggressive to allow low-ranking Forest Service officials to set the agenda.
"You can't just leave a decision like this up to Kevin Riordan, because it could develop into a horse-trading contest," says Poe. "Since he's the hands-on guy, there could be the danger that he wants to get rid of something very badly simply because it solves a management headache for him and as a result he ends up giving away the farm. But the bottom line is that we're waiting for the appraisals just like anyone else, and that becomes very frustrating for us because we've got to do a bunch of juggling. And of course, people up in the Fryingpan are curious about what Morris wants to do, and they want to be involved early on."
Poe claims to sympathize with the Fryingpan folks.
"Do you sit back and take a year to understand the business and get a good idea of what needs to be done while the citizens stew? Or do you start floating ideas out that aren't fully developed?" he says. "In this case, we erred on the side of working with the community early on rather than doing the internal work first and having the Fryingpan Caucus go bananas waiting for word of what was going on. Well, they ended up going bananas anyway, interpreting everything we presented as being cast in concrete and was going to totally change their quality of life. The fact is that it's still all very premature."
The people of the Fryingpan aren't taking any chances. They've contacted the "summer folks" who own vacation cabins in the area to lend their expertise and voices to the fight. They've also contacted Kenny Frost, a Native American archaeologist and an expert in fighting developments. (Westword profiled Frost in "Sacred Ground," October 19, 1994.) Frost hiked around the Fryingpan River Ranch lease property last month and identified several sites containing Indian artifacts. During the hike, Frost and his group were visited by a golden eagle, a sighting that Frost takes as an indication that the spirits of his Southern Ute ancestors are still hovering around Morris's proposed development.
"It's kind of a standing joke with the Forest Service personnel," says Frost from his home in Durango. "An eagle generally pops up at every sacred site I survey. They joke around, saying stuff like, 'Okay, Kenny, it's a sacred site. You can call off your trained eagle.'
"There are some genuine artifacts up there. We found a tepee village and a chipping area for arrowheads. But I'm not going to give out the exact locations of these sites, because a lot of developers aren't above destroying a site to clear the path for their project. Under federal law, archaeological sites must be protected--and you can't protect what's been destroyed. But I think we've got enough to take this land trade out of contention."
County commissioner Mick Ireland also believes that Bass Pro can be beaten. "We've had good relations with the Forest Service," he says, "and if this trade ever gets officially proposed, the county commissioners would go on the record opposed to it. And without the land swap, Morris can't do what we think he has plans for. But the fact that he's still hanging around is interesting. Maybe he thinks it's just the Fryingpan Caucus versus the world."
Ireland says Pitkin County is more savvy than that.
"In a sense, this is new for the people of the Fryingpan, and they don't have a lot of experience dealing with people like Morris," he says. "But for Aspen and Pitkin County, it's not a new deal. A lot of people come into town with money and clout and think that they'll sink us. Hell, [Hollywood movie producer] Peter Guber built a cabin out here without a permit and we made him tear it down. But people still think that if you wave a wad of cash around and hang around long enough they'll wear us down and we'll give in and say 'yes.' And that's why the county pays me $25,000 a year without batting an eye."
Jim Crowley has a more direct plan for getting rid of Morris.
"All this ruckus we caused just put a crimp in what they want to do," says Crowley. "But they're no doubt still dealing with the Forest Service on the Q.T. And I'll bet that their next proposal won't be as lame as the first one. But I'll tell you this: The only option I'll accept is to give Morris the buildings and the lease, just like the ranch has always been run. Option two would be a boot in the ass.
"Morris keeps saying that he wants to come up here and improve what we've already got. Well, I think God did a pretty good job the first time around. We don't need Johnny Morris fixing it."
Visit www.westword.com to read related Westword stories.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.