A battle for the future of Crested Butte
The Denver Post/AP
Aspen, CO Colorado
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. ” This town at the end of Colorado 135 was near the end of its rope back in 1969 ” with a failing mine and a faltering ski resort.
“We were a community without an economy,” said George Sibley, a ski bum turned newspaper editor. “We’d have been happy for anything to work.”
Four decades later, the city of 1,600 at the foot of the Ruby Range faces a deluge of riches as a ski-resort developer and mine operators are angling to spend as much as $800 million on potentially competing plans.
Crested Butte, already the scene of the longest-running mining fight in the West, has become a crucible for the competing visions of the region’s future.
The battle pits skiing at one end of town on Mount Crested Butte against mining at the other on Mount Emmons ” known as “The Red Lady” because of its scarlet hue at sunrise. In between sits a historic district ” a weave of cottages and small, corrugated metal-roofed homes on roughly paved streets. But buried in the Red Lady is one of the “best, undeveloped, high-grade molybdenum deposits” in the world, says Kevin Loughrey, chief executive of Thompson Creek Metals Co. Inc. In August, Toronto-based Thompson Creek became the fourth mining company in 31 years hoping to sink shafts into the Red Lady to reach about 700 million pounds of the alloy that’s used in paint, auto parts and stainless steel.
“This is a fight for the wallet and the soul of the West,” said Josef Marlow, author of an economic analysis of Crested Butte for the nonprofit Sonoran Institute.
A particular thorn in the town’s side is the General Mining Act of 1872, which gives mining priority over all other uses on public lands in the West.
“It really leaves the town vulnerable,” said Alan Bernholtz, Crested Butte’s 38-year-old mayor, a backcountry guide known for skiing over fire at the town’s Mardi Gras parade. “We’ve tried to fight it.”
Back when Sibley was reporting on the town’s hardscrabble days, Keith Larsen was up on Mount Emmons, driving claim stakes into U.S. Forest Service land. Larsen’s company, Riverton, Wyo.-based U.S. Energy Corp., had bought the old Crested Butte Silver Mine and was preparing to redevelop it.
“There’s been opposition,” said Larsen, who is now U.S. Energy’s chief executive. “But we didn’t put the molybdenum there; God did.”
In 1970, the beleaguered ski resort was bought by the Callaway and Walton families and got its first infusion of cash.
Seven years later, U.S. Energy had found a partner ” AMAX Inc. AMAX was followed by Cyprus AMAX, Phelps Dodge Corp. and Kobex Minerals Ltd. All sought but did not succeed in mining.
The arrival in August of Thompson Creek, the world’s fifth-largest molybdenum producer, has made mining’s future seem “more real,” said Christi Matthews, director of the town’s Chamber of Commerce. Thompson Creek paid U.S. Energy a $500,000 option enabling them to spend $50 million over 10 years to obtain 50 percent ownership or up to $400 million for a 75 percent share.
“The advantageous terms are a reflection of how difficult a project this is,” said Thompson Creek’s Loughrey.
The first AMAX project went bust in the early 1980s when the price of molybdenum dropped to $3 a pound.
Faced with the slowdown of the world economy, the price of the alloy tumbled this month to $12.38 from $21.38 a pound.
That will not deter planning for the Mount Emmons mine, which would not go into full production for another 10 years, Loughrey said. Using modern techniques, the ore can be removed with a minimum of disturbance and meet all environmental rules, Loughrey contends. A mine would also boost town revenue.
“A natural resource isn’t a resource unless you use it,” he said. “If we get a fair hearing, I think we can convince the town we can coexist.”
In the three decades since the fight began, Crested Butte has followed a path that wends far from its roots as an Old West silver-mining town.
In 1986, the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival began. The town proclaimed itself Colorado’s “wildflower capital.”
Two years later, future mayor Bernholtz came to town selling Grateful Dead T-shirts during Fat Tire Bike Week ” a celebration of the town as the “birthplace of mountain biking.”
This August, the same month Thompson Creek came on the scene, Outside magazine named Crested Butte one of the 10 best places in the country to live.
“Mining is incompatible with the economic drivers in this valley,” said Bill Ronai, president of the Red Lady Coalition.
“People are drawn here by the environment. This is a thread that holds a lot together,” said Ronai, whose group represents business interests as well as upscale homeowners.
An avid skier, Ronai was a fund manager in London where a local ski shop posted snow conditions for Alpine resorts like Innsbruck, Chamonix, Zermatt ” and Crested Butte.
Ronai decided to check out the town. “I came back to London and told my wife that if we ever moved back to the States, I knew just the place,” he said.
The median age in Crested Butte is 32. Almost 60 percent of the residents have college or advanced degrees.
Employment in professional services, sales, management, business and finance make up half the jobs, according to the Sonoran Institute study. Food preparation accounts for another 14 percent and construction for 12 percent.
“It is very much a service-recreation economy,” said the Sonoran Institute’s Marlow.
In 2003, the ski resort, once again cash-strapped, was bought by East Coast ski resort developers Tim and Diane Mueller for $50 million.
In the past two years, they have poured $200 million into the resort ” with plans to add equally large sums, according to Ken Stone, the resort’s chief operating officer. The goal is to develop a total of 3,500 condominiums and homes with prices ranging from $300,000 to $6 million.
The resort generated $40 million in revenue last year with 416,000 skier visits. The aim is to boost visits by 56 percent. There is a plan to develop new ski runs on Snodgrass Mountain, which is national forest land.
Stone said that thanks to the 1872 law, it is easier to sink a mine shaft than lay down a ski run. “That’s what the Forest Service tells us,” he said. “There is a mandate to promote mining.”
Another measure of the gap is that on the mountain opposite the Red Lady, an acre goes for more than $16,000 in the Trappers Crossing subdivision. On Mount Emmons around the old Keystone Mine, the federal government sold acres for $5 apiece in 2004.
After a “branding” exercise, the resort’s executives came to the conclusion that the small, picturesque town, with its mining tradition ” but without a mine ” was a unique draw.
“We are in competition with other ski resorts, and even the possibility of industrial activity hurts our position,” Stone said.
Because its battle against the 1872 mining act hasn’t succeeded, the town has tried to find other ways to control its destiny. The Crested Butte Land Trust has bought 4,000 acres to keep in open space, spending, for example, $6 million for 750 acres on the Slate River.
The community also initiated a $1 million cleanup of the old Peanut Mine. State and federal grants paid for about half; the town and private donations paid the other half.
Crested Butte has adopted a tough watershed protection ordinance to safeguard its drinking water. The town takes its water from a pipe on Coal Creek just above the mine site. Irrigation water for ranches and farms is drawn from a pipe below the mine.
The ordinance was carefully drawn because it creates a situation where a local law is managing federal land, said town attorney John Belkin.
All over Crested Butte, strings of red Tibetan-style prayer flags ” more than 1,600 of them ” are draped around doorways and poles.
Inspired by Tibetan monks who held demonstrations at the town’s Center for the Arts, Molly Murfee, a local writer, decided to create prayer flags for the Red Lady.
“Protests are usually negative, and I thought we should do something with positive energy,” Murfee said.
Five local artists donated designs, and 150 people in town ” from children to town officials ” wrote prayers.
“They say when the wind blows it carries the prayers to the mountain,” Murfee said.
Among the prayers: “The people of Crested Butte will watch over you as you watch over the town”; “I can look at it every morning and see the beautiful sunrise”; “I like it and my mommy likes it too.”
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