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Thompson Creek Road: Whose land is it, anyway?

Locations: News Published

Locals and out-of-towners alike enjoy the pristine beauty of South, Middle and North Thompson Creek, but the jurisdictional and property lines can cause some confusion.

Earlier this summer, a lot of Facebook attention was focused on the area due to assumed partiers along the road heading to North Thompson. About a quarter of a mile from where the road becomes dirt, leftover garbage and makeshift campfire rings were left in the wake. One Facebook user reported coming across a smoldering unattended fire in June.

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Parker Lathrop, chief deputy of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, said that the department has received calls after a party has occurred, generally the next day once the alleged partiers had cleared out. He said that it’s important to report unattended fires immediately.

Carbondale & Rural Fire Protection District Deputy Chief Mike Wagner told The Sopris Sun that the department generally responds to two to three calls in the area every year, albeit not strictly for unattended campfires. He did say that the department’s initial attack patrols, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, sweep the district regularly, including in the Thompson Creek area. “One thing they patrol for … is unattended campfires,” he clarified.

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“We work very closely with the Forest Service, BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and Pitkin County,” Wagner added. “There is no lack of coordination between all of those entities and 911.” 

The county line, between Pitkin and Garfield, is about a half a mile east of the Spring Gulch parking area. According to Brian Pettet of Pitkin County Public Works, the county retains the right-of-way along the North Thompson Creek Road all the way to the locked gate (three miles past the cattle guard).

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“That area has a mix of just about everything,” added Lathrop. “Middle and South Thompson are a combination of county, BLM and Forest Service [lands].” According to a GIS mapping tool, there are also a number of private parcels in Middle and South Thompson.

Much of the land adjacent to Thompson Creek Road, including Spring Gulch, and North Thompson Creek Road is privately owned by the North Thompson Four Mile Mineral Land Corporation (NTFM), what locals may know as the Cattlemens’ Association. Often, people don’t realize, or simply stumble upon it as a rural and safe place to park their RV and camp. 

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Dispersed camping
“The county purchased a conservation easement from us, but we own the land and have full control over it, we just can’t build a Walmart up there,” Bill Fales, a cattle rancher and shareholder of NTFM, stated.

He added that his understanding is that some online mapping resources which people use to find dispersed camping will incorrectly label the land as county or public, adding to the confusion.

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“We’ve had trouble with onXmaps and another online company … where you get these maps through an app,” Fales explained.

Interestingly, when this reporter was at North Thompson Creek Road in late June, campers camped on private land adjacent to the road stated that they’d discovered the area online and were under the assumption that the land was public. They politely stated that they’d inform the online group that the land was, in fact, private. The onXmaps website has since noted that the parcel is privately owned.

There are some exceptions where the public is granted access to NTFM land, but not for camping. For instance, “NTFM leases the Spring Gulch Nordic Ski Area to the Mount Sopris Nordic Council, only for skiing; not for walking your dog, not for snowshoeing, not for anything except nordic skiing,” said Fales. He credited his late father-in-law, Bob Perry, for offering this recreation opportunity to the community. The first part of the Marion Trail is also owned by NTFM, which permits equestrian and pedestrian access, so people can get to the public land beyond. 

Target practice
Just beyond the cattle guard on Thompson Creek Road, there is an unofficial shooting range where people have practiced their aim for years. Most often, people shoot from the road (a county right-of-way) and toward a hill on the east side. According to the Pitkin County Assessor, the land adjacent to that part of the road is owned by NTFM. 

“A lot of time, they’re on public land, shooting onto private land,” Fales said.

He added that people have been known to leave trash up there. If one looks down the gully, directly across the road from the unofficial shooting area, they’ll indeed see all sorts of things, including house appliances and more. 

“Dealing with the trash is a real frustration for us,” continued Fales. “It’s not a way to treat land. Too many people go up there and dump their trash, and it’s a real problem.”

Lathrop pointed The Sopris Sun to the Forest Service webpage when it comes to best practices while shooting on public lands. According to the website, “Abandoning any personal property or failing to dispose of all garbage, including targets, paper, cans, bottles, appliances” is prohibited.

This map shows parts of the North, South and Thompson Creek roads. The opaque beige overlay indicates BLM land, and the green is for Forest Service lands, otherwise the parces are privately owned. The large parcel that includes Spring Gulch and part of North Thompson Creek Road belongs to the Cattlemens’ Association. Map generated from Pitkin County Assessor’s GIS tool

Tags: #BLM #camping #Cattlemen's Association #fire #Pitkin county #property #shooting #Thompson Creek
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