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June 27, 2005
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'Freedom Eagle' is grounded

A sculptor who is carving a massive eagle underneath a flank of Mount Sopris says the project's wings have been clipped by the U.S. Forest Service.Jeremy Russell has been told that he cannot work on the memorial to U.S. military veterans or give guided tours to the site. He has been working on the eagle for three years in an alabaster mine up Avalanche Creek, about five miles north of Redstone. He's carving the bird onto the side of Robert Congdon's mine about 100 feet in from where the shaft burrows into the earth.Russell and his supporters have started a petition drive to collect signatures to try to convince the Forest Service to let him go back to work on the "Cost of Freedom Eagle."The petition is available at a variety of businesses in Glenwood Springs and the midvalley. So far more than 1,000 signatures have been collected."I'm just going for as much support as I can," Russell said. "My goal by Dec. 31 is 10,000."But the issue isn't as simple as whether or not the public supports the project, said White River Forest Supervisor Maribeth Gustafson, who took the post in April. She said she doesn't want to trample anybody's rights, but she has laws to uphold.Congdon and his White Banks Marble and Alabaster company have a permit issued under mining law, Gustafson said. He insists the permit allows Russell's work and its display.The agency's staff contends that the creation and display of the eagle aren't covered by that permit, Gustafson said. They function more as tourist attractions than mining operations, she said.Congdon and the agency also hold opposing views on whether he can mine year-round. That dispute, he said, is hampering investment in his operation and delaying his ability to pull rock from the ground.Since she's new on the job, Gustafson is gathering as much information as she can before making any decisions on Congdon's mine. She said she's giving Congdon time to show the documentation that he says allows public events and tours to view the eagle. While Gustafson said it would be valuable to see the level of public support for the project, she stressed that she is "hemmed in by law rather than public sentiment.""We have to follow mining law and so does Mr. Congdon," she said.Congdon and Russell always have the option to apply for a special use permit that would allow them to display the eagle, Gustafson said.Russell is a sculptor caught in the middle of opposing interpretations made by a miner and a public land management agency.He's had the vision of creating the eagle since shortly after a July 1996 accident that took his right leg, and nearly his life. Russell said he knew that after surviving he was meant to do something special. The artist took up sculpting and met Congdon after using some of his alabaster to create a piece.When Russell toured Congdon's mine he came up with the idea of the eagle. He started working on it in 2002 and formed the nonprofit Cost of Freedom Eagle Organization. His goal is to complete the eagle, have it declared a national memorial and start displaying it in 2006.The plan has the support of some veterans' groups, as well as various businesses and individuals in the Roaring Fork and Crystal valleys. The nonprofit is collecting funds for three causes - completing the Freedom Eagle, buying replacement limbs for wounded veterans and enhancing arts for high school students through programs and scholarships.More information is available about the organization at www.thecostoffreedomeagle.org.Russell said he understands that the Forest Service wants to guard against the opening of a tourist trap in such a beautiful setting on public land. His business plan states that educational field trips would take people from Carbondale to the mine in a bus running on propane. There would be three field trips with 15 people each on three days of the week. Tours would be free; donations would be welcomed.Russell keeps faith that the vision will become reality since the project has already come so far. The finished eagle will have a wingspan of 42 feet. The head alone is estimated to weigh six tons."Basically I'm walking through doors that the Lord opened up," said Russell.Scott Condon's e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Jun 28, 2005 07:44AM Published Jun 27, 2005 12:00AM Copyright 2005 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.