It is extremely difficult to hide a town for very long and, alas, Crested Butte has been rediscovered. Crested Butte, population about 1,000, is a 19th-century mining town tucked away in a protected nook of the Colorado Rockies south of Aspen. It sits at an altitude of 8,800 feet at the north end of the sparsely settled East River Valley, which is sweet green in the summer, warm gold in autumn and brilliantly white in winter. Mornings in Crested Butte at this time of year are so bright and brisk that they hurt the eye. Afternoons are so pink and still that the effect is hypnotic.
Twenty-five years ago Crested Butte was all but busted after 75 years as a mining boomtown. Recently it has been making a slow comeback as a recreation area. In the mountains surrounding the valley—which glides south for 28 miles from Crested Butte to Gunnison, the county seat—there is hiking, climbing and hunting, particularly for elk. There is kayaking and trout and salmon fishing in the white-water streams. In the summer, hot-air balloons and hang gliders soar over the meadows. Near the mouth of the valley lies Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in the state, where there is boating, water skiing and more fishing. The ski resort on Crested Butte mountain offers 35 runs, and at the base of the area is a network of some of the best Nordic trails in the country.
But along with Crested Butte's newfound renown as a recreational area has come the prospect of renewed mining. And the town is reacting as might be expected—it is squirming.
Molybdenum (pronounced moh-lib'-de-num and often called "moly") has been found two miles from town, on 12,414-foot Mount Emmons. This is the peak the locals call Red Lady because of its color, a stunning rouge, at sunset. The find is conservatively estimated to be worth $2 billion. Some say it may be the third-largest known molybdenum deposit in a world that devours the mineral. Molybdenum, a metallic element of the chromium group, is used primarily to strengthen steel, but it is also used in the production of lubricants, fertilizer, rubber and paint.
February 19, 1979
The mining company that made the huge find on Red Lady is the nation's largest, American Metal Climax Inc. AMAX), 20% of which is owned by Standard Oil of California. Although Mount Emmons is public land, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, AMAX has the legal right to take minerals from it. Environmentalists complain that the U.S. Mining Act of 1872, as amended in 1955, the law that applies, is woefully antiquated and inadequate, but it has survived repeated attempts at repeal because of the strength of mining interests, whose ranks include several Western senators and congressmen.
AMAX would like to build an underground mine on Mount Emmons, going in through the old Keystone mine, which was abandoned in 1975 and sold to AMAX in 1977. The new mine would be operational in six to eight years and could extract from 10,000 to 30,000 tons of earth a day for 20 to 30 years. When the molybdenum is gone, the mountain will be gone, too. Red Lady will have "subsided"—she will have shrunk to an unmajestic mound.
Though it is conceded that AMAX has the legal right to subside a public mountain for private profit, the question now being debated in Gunnison County is whether or not it has the moral right, especially without the approval of the citizens. There also is disagreement as to whether or not AMAX has the technical ability to mine the molybdenum cleanly. And if the answer is yes, how can the community keep less responsible miners from charging into the valley?
"Crested Butte is the hottest issue in U.S. preservation today," says Arthur C. Townsend, Colorado's historic-preservation officer. "It is so complex and it includes so many currently significant national issues. There's the historical value, the potential archeological, recreational, wilderness and educational values. There is a tremendous resource and mining potential to consider. It's all there and it challenges the way this country traditionally makes decisions."
Stan Dempsey is a vice-president of AMAX and its director of environmental control. He is a roundish, avuncular man, pleased to be involved with the Mount Emmons project because it keeps him near the mountains he loves. He believes mining in the Rockies is necessary and a fact of life.
"The fact that a mineral deposit that size exists means that society will get at it one way or another at some point in time," says Dempsey. "There are a lot of communities involved that have a stake in Mount Emmons besides Crested Butte. Gunnison County has a stake, so does the state of Colorado, so does the nation, so does the world. Who has the right to say you can't have a mine on Mount Emmons? We have a national minerals policy that encourages us to go out and find a Mount Emmons and mine it. This is the very best area in the world to look for minerals. I think the question is not should we get at these minerals, but how do we get at them and do the best possible job?
"Over the past 10 or 15 years I've made my career on the constructive resolution of problems of this sort. If I said there were no problems, I would sound silly. But the only way we're ever going to learn to deal with them is to go out and find out about them. Anybody with two eyes can see that this is an incredibly beautiful place, that there are some very important wildlife resources, and we've simply got to work to handle any problems we might have with those resources. For example, we know there are winter wildlife ranges in the East River Valley that some people feel may be threatened by our activities. There is a deer range and a bighorn-sheep range, and they overlap. We've got the best wildlife people we know working cooperatively with the state. We're conducting a study to look at the migratory paths for elk. If we find that elk do go through any area where we are operating—if we find problems—I expect we'll either mitigate them or avoid them.
"We have a selfish interest in learning how to do this, because if we can't gain community acceptance, we can't gain access to the minerals. We've got to protect the environment and it's a challenge; we recognize the significance of Crested Butte. Mount Emmons is the first of a new generation of mines."
The man who is orchestrating the anti-mine movement is Myles Rademan, the Crested Butte town planner. Rademan, a lawyer, is a transplanted Easterner, like many residents who discovered the place when it was more of a ghost town. He and Dempsey share a mutual respect. The people of Crested Butte are counting on Rademan to save the day.
"AMAX says the world needs molybdenum, but we say the country needs healthy use of the land more," Rademan says. "From the town's perspective, AMAX created the need—it exports approximately half of the moly it mines anyhow. That's part of American capitalism: creating a demand. Well, why should AMAX have the right to define need any more than the people who live on the land?
"The problem is, the same geological conditions that create minerals create all this beautiful land so ripe for recreation. The mineral belt is here in the center of the state, in the heart of existing Wilderness Areas, proposed Wilderness Areas and Forest Service land. So what we're talking about is basically incompatible uses of the land. Unfortunately, the law provides mining with first rights to that land. Yet everything the government has done points to this as a recreation area. It has designated national monuments around here. Crested Butte is one of maybe six towns in Colorado in the National Registry of Historic Places. The ski area is on federal land, and no one has even measured how significant we are as a watershed for all of the Southwest. The edge of the valley lies just 15 or 20 miles west of the Continental Divide, and the headwaters of the Colorado River are here. All of this indicates that this is a national playground and scenic area. You can't change the fact that the East River Valley is a national treasure."
Rademan is not always comfortable playing savior. "I don't want to paint this all black and white," he says, "as if they're evil. They like hunting and fishing, too. They're concerned with the environment. I just think they're myopic. They think they can mine without disrupting the environment, but they're going to have to be magicians. All last summer, hikers and game and even fish were scared to death by the helicopters and dynamite blasting—and that was just part of AMAX's exploratory process.
"The people who live here aren't out to make money off the land; we are sort of caretakers. We were very lucky to have a place like Crested Butte to come to, and we feel a responsibility to preserve it for people who will want to come here in the future."
Central to the controversy, although possibly affected least by the outcome, is Howard (Bo) Callaway, who, with a partner, has owned the Crested Butte Mountain Resort ski area since 1970. Callaway's position is unique in its security: he is the only principal who stands to gain either way. He is carefully keeping a middle-of-the-road posture.
Callaway is no stranger to controversy. A former Georgia Congressman and Secretary of the Army, he resigned as President Ford's campaign manager after it was revealed that while he was Secretary of the Army he had held discussions in his Pentagon office with Forest Service officials about his resort and some of its problems. Before taking the government job, Callaway had asked to expand his resort on the Forest Service-managed land. The approval came after he left the job. Vigorous investigation by both the Justice Department and a Senate subcommittee cleared Callaway of any influence peddling. Callaway now sees himself as a fall guy, and many people in Crested Butte sympathize with him.
Callaway has the air of a good ol' boy gone fishin'. In his office, at the foot of the gondola lift, he usually wears a faded corduroy or plaid shirt, old corduroy pants supported by a belt with a Crested Butte buckle, hiking boots and frayed, drooping socks. When he speaks of his mountain, he is enraptured. "I'm prejudiced, but I really believe it's the finest ski area in America," he says. "Because we're so high, we get more snow than most of the other mountains. We're the only butte in Colorado where there's skiing, and by being isolated, the mountain doesn't feel squeezed. From the top you see broad vistas. There is no evidence of man in view—not a road, not a house, nothing but absolute nature. When the mountain gets the afternoon sun, it's the prettiest mountain in the world.
"Far as the mine goes, I don't feel threatened. Some of the exploratory drilling sites over on Mount Emmons can be seen from certain spots on the slopes, but I don't believe anyone will ever stay away from Crested Butte because Mount Emmons is being mined. The subsiding of Mount Emmons is inevitable, and I won't like that—it's so damn pretty, Red Lady is a very pretty mountain—but I guess you can look at it as if it had never been there in the first place."
There are rarely any ski-lift lines at Crested Butte, which indicates that perhaps the resort is not operating profitably. "AMAX has indicated to me at the highest level that they want a well-run ski area here," Callaway says. He doesn't deny that if the resort encounters financial difficulty—such as those brought about by the drought two winters ago—that "AMAX would be very receptive if we went to them and said, 'Hey, we need financial help.' "
Callaway owns another 160-acre chunk of land in the nearby North Pole Basin. AMAX may test drill for moly on a ridge of Forest Service land in the basin, and should the company find and decide to work it, crews would need access across Callaway's land to get to the deposit. Callaway says he has "definite plans for a really great" trout-fishing area there and allows that mining in the basin, roughly half a mile away, would be in sight of the fishing area.
"I was sick when they told me about their plans to put a drill rig up there next summer," he says. "Drilling for moly up there is not my idea of what to do. But I can't stop them; by law they can do it. I'm not going to harass them by denying access; my attorneys have told me that if I fight them I might be able to delay it for a year, but they would eventually get access anyhow. So I'm willing to go up there with them and see how we can do it with minimum disturbance."
"Bo is a charming guy, but he is not a man of courage," says Myles Rademan.
Jim Houston is the area manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife. He is a tall, wiry man who has been working in the outdoors for 24 years. He has a keen sense of humor, but his jaw sets when he discusses the potential effect of the mine to wildlife in the valley.
"This could be a landmark confrontation over industry use of public land," he says. "The theory of the federal government is to operate land use at its lowest possible level—that's the theory, anyhow. The state is supposed to stay neutral in all this, so let's say my personal feelings are a lot stronger than my professional feelings. This is probably the best valley in the state for game. If exciting hunting exists in the state, it's here: deer and elk, black bear, a few cougar, even a herd of bighorn sheep. The biggest impact is probably going to be on the elk. We're pretty sure we have 10,000 elk in this valley, and in 1977 we had 12,963 hunters, who took 3,155 elk. There were 7,541 deer hunters, who took 3,541 deer. People talk about the mine being a good influence on the economy, but aren't all those hunters a tremendous influence on the economy, too?
"This is difficult. AMAX is doing exploratory drilling all over the place already, and there's no telling where they'll eventually mine. Last summer the sky was full of helicopters, and there was a month where they set off a blast what seemed like every few minutes. To be fair, we see no indication that there has been any serious disruption to the game so far; the animals just go to the other side of the mountain. But 20 to 30 years down the line, there will be no other side of the mountain.
"If AMAX comes in we'll have 10,000 more people in the county—that's double the population—but I think if other companies come, we could conservatively have 20,000 more people, and how do you assess that impact? Just the sheer volume of their activity will disrupt elk and deer migratory patterns. Their snow machines, their dogs...it's going to knock the hell out of wildlife. AMAX has already spent $200,000 on a study to try to determine elk migratory patterns, and we appreciate that because our department certainly couldn't afford that kind of study, but so far it hasn't really been conclusive.
"The key to the whole thing is the big-game wintering range. Gunnison County has something over 3,000 square miles, 82% of which is federally owned. About 10%, or 376 square miles, is all that's available as wintering range for wildlife after everything gets snowed in in the high country. Half of that 10% is privately owned land the Forest Service doesn't manage. AMAX is continually negotiating to buy part of that land, or possibly they already have—they're secretive as hell about it. If we lose that land, we lose the big game. The worst that can happen is the game can dramatically starve by the hundreds or thousands; more likely a few will drop here and there, a few will migrate to another valley, and the vast majority will just disappear and we'll have no idea where they went."
Gunnison County is crisscrossed with trout streams offering some 825 miles of some of the best fishing in the state. Along the East River between Crested Butte and Gunnison is the Roaring Judy state hatchery, one of the three largest in the state and the only one breeding salmon. Every year the Roaring Judy releases 3½ to 4 million fingerling trout, as well as 700,000 catchable rainbows into the southwest part of the state.
The superintendent of the hatchery, Ray McDonald, is cautious about the possible deleterious effect of a mine, but he isn't alarmed. "On the average, I don't think we're going to be affected too much by it," he says. "The biggest effect might be from the tailings pond AMAX is talking about building in Alkali Basin about six miles from here. [A tailings pond is a reinforced pit serving as a depository for the earth removed from a mine. After being processed to extract the molybdenum, the earth is slimy and semipoisonous. For every 100 pounds of earth removed from Mount Emmons, 99.6 pounds would become tailings. It is estimated that Alkali Basin could hold 305 million tons.] From Alkali Basin, there is a gradual slope that runs down to the East River. I suppose if the tailings pond leaked, five or six miles of the East River would be polluted. If there was an earthquake or a flood, the Gunnison River would also probably be contaminated, maybe 20 to 25 miles of streams altogether, and they all flow into Blue Mesa Reservoir. But I'm sure any tailings pond would be solid. I presume AMAX will take every precaution they can so that a break won't happen, because a break would be catastrophic.
"AMAX is wanting to do the right thing, and I'm sure they are. We're all concerned about groundwater as well as stream water, and AMAX is making monthly and quarterly water-quality reports. They're testing the trout in country streams for minerals and monitoring fish population. AMAX is doing all that voluntarily. I'm all for that kind of thing.
"A mine is going to be good for this county. It will help the working man. Mining is the root of our existence; everything comes from the earth. Everything changes. If we didn't have change, we'd all be dinosaurs. I don't know how you can stop it. I don't know if you want to. It's federal land, it belongs to everybody."
The one man in Gunnison County holding the most potential power in the issue is Mike Curran, the district ranger. Curran is in charge of compiling the official Environmental Impact Statement on the proposed mine, a job that could take a minimum of 18 more months. He accepts the responsibility with resignation rather than relish. Curran spends a lot of his time explaining what the Forest Service cannot do, which is:
•Deny any valid mineral development application.
•Deny the exploratory and developmental activities of any bonafide mining concern.
•Restrict any reasonable mining activities.
His power lies in the interpretation of the word "reasonable." The Crested Butte Town Council would define the word one way, AMAX would define it another.
"This is a classic case, and I think it's enormously significant," says Curran. "It's just the tip of the iceberg. It's a prototype for the '80s. AMAX has told us they intend to have a mine here and, under the terms of the 1872 law, actually they can do nearly anything they want. But they're trying to bend over backward to go along with us. They're striving to go beyond any environmental protections that have ever been taken.
"There would be some advantages to the mine environmentally and recreationally. Some of the Forest Service land they need is scrub land, and we have a system of land exchanges—that is, AMAX will buy private land suitable for recreation, then trade it to the Forest Service for scrub land in a location they need. Or, for mitigation purposes, AMAX could buy private recreational land and simply donate it to the Forest Service. The mine would also help some aspects of the recreation economy, such as motorcycle, snowmobile and four-wheel-drive dealers, and it would probably benefit the ski area. That's about it for the pluses. For the minuses, if the mine comes, I don't think the actual on-sight deterioration of esthetics will be major, but I see a shift to motorized recreation—from backpacking to four-wheel driving, from cross-country skiing to snowmobiling—and from experience we've learned that motorized recreationists are more consumptive; they don't have the concern backpackers have, they use the environment without preserving it.
"The elk will probably be driven down to the valley floor and get into the haystacks. Farmers will begin shooting them, requesting longer seasons. There will be more poaching and hunting out of season. I see an increase in private-land violations: hunting without permission, gates left open, which will force ranchers to lock gates that now provide the only access to Forest Service land. Certainly we will have an increase in fire risk. We'll have to deal with increased recreational vandalism, something we have virtually none of now, so we'll have to bone up on our Forest Service law enforcement.
"We'll have to try and make the best of the situation. This is some of the most beautiful country in the world, and I believe the National Forest should be available for a balance in its use. In some cases recreation and industry can coexist, and I hope this could be one of them."
Generally, Gunnison County is not opposed to the mine. There are nearly 200 ranches in the county, and the ranchers hold the political power. Most believe the economic advantages of a mine will outweigh the social, environmental and recreational disadvantages, and they are cautiously hospitable to AMAX.
While the confrontation has been building, one of those most passionately involved is Crested Butte's mayor, W. Mitchell (that is his legal name). Mitchell's role seems to be to focus national interest on the issue. He goes to Washington at every opportunity, reveling in the personal attention he receives, which is a lot. Mitchell lost most of both hands in a motorcycle crash, which also disfigured his face. Later, in a crash of his private plane, his legs were paralyzed; he now is wheelchair-ridden. Neither accident seems to have slowed him down nor dampened his spirit.
The anti-mine sentiment in Crested Butte seemed to crystallize in December, and the seven-member Town Council is expected to make a unanimous and formal anti-mine statement soon, reflecting the findings of a town panel called the Future Shock Commission.
"After I was elected in November of 1977," Mitchell says, "I decided I would take a year to wait and see and look at things. Last November AMAX sponsored a tour of boom towns in the West, and what we saw was worse than even we imagined. Like the Loch Ness monster, it was kind of hard before to picture the problem because we couldn't see it, but now the monster has come out of the swamp. What we've seen is impending disaster for this community. I see no way that this mine is going to benefit Gunnison County. If AMAX succeeds here, this will become a mining district again. It will be just the beginning.
"Oh, AMAX is going to mitigate and all that crap. They're going to paint their buildings green and they're going to treat Coal Creek—that's the creek that runs through town and is already badly polluted from past mining operations. And 30 years from now they'll try to grow grass over the top of the tailings pond—which is a euphemism, by the way; the oldtime miners know them as slime pits. Call one a tailings pond in front of an old-timer and he'll know you're a turkey.
"But AMAX is not willing to consider that this mine should not be built at all. We feel AMAX should back down, withdraw—not abandon the project entirely, but put it on the back burner, turn to their other projects until they can prove they have the technology to mine the moly in Mount Emmons without affecting the environment. I think that's the only way AMAX can prove what they've been saying, that they are a responsible company. This would be a case of them saying, 'Well, we can see a lot of money in moly, but the cost to this community won't be worth it.' If AMAX doesn't back away, this whole thing will probably end up in court."
There is a sign in Crested Butte that seems to express the town's sentiment. It hangs in the largely oak lobby/restaurant/bar of the century-old Forest Queen Hotel, the hotel at the end of town on polluted Coal Creek. The sign says, CRESTED BUTTE. LOVE IT...BY LEAVING IT THE WAY YOU FOUND IT.