Ajax mining ruling could influence other disputes | AspenTimes.com

Ajax mining ruling could influence other disputes

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Lands in some of Aspen’s favorite backcountry playgrounds are a step closer to having development threats removed thanks to a decision Monday by the state Supreme Court, according to four environmental groups.

The Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch, two national organizations, as well as Aspen Valley Land Trust and Aspen Wilderness Workshop, teamed with Pitkin County in an ownership dispute over a mining claim on the back of Aspen Mountain.

The environmental groups provided research for the county and were allowed to submit a brief as parties with an interest in the outcome, according to their attorney, Lori Potter of Denver.

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in favor of the county Monday. That decision kept the mining claim out of private hands and snuffed the potential for development.

The environmental coalition feels the case has implications for similar disputes that could affect places like the Hunter Creek Valley, Conundrum Creek Valley, American Lake and even Castle Peak, one of Colorado’s peaks higher than 14,000 feet.

There are 50 similar lawsuits, all involving ownership of mining claims around Aspen, pending in U.S. District Court in Denver. In those cases, individuals or corporations contend that Pitkin County illegally traded mining claims to the U.S. Forest Service in exchange for the Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel. The plaintiffs in those cases claim they own the property.

Neither Pitkin County nor the environmental coalition are parties to those lawsuits, but they are closely monitoring the cases and have pressed the federal government to aggressively defend the cases.

“The feds had been kind of lackluster in defending these things until a personnel change recently,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely. He said a new lawyer from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver took over the cases.

Potter said the cases are important because if the Forest Service loses, the property could go back into private hands, and the wilderness experience could be damaged or even ruined in several places.

Several of the disputed mining claims are in the Conundrum Creek Valley and clustered around the famed Conundrum Hot Springs and camping area, according to the coalition’s research. Losing those cases could potentially close access to parts of the valley and open the risk of development such as a marble mine.

Another disputed claim “appears to straddle the ridge leading off the south side of Castle Peak,” according to the coalition’s research. It might affect the popular hiking trail on the fourteener and even if it doesn’t, development on the claim could affect the hiking experience.

Other disputed claims are near Ashcroft, Independence and the Avalanche Creek area.

Potter was hopeful that the U.S. Attorney’s Office would apply the ruling made by the Colorado Supreme Court to the cases pending in federal court.

If so, many of the claims there that are based on the same arguments “will be thrown out there, too,” Potter said.

Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said the lawyer on the 50 mining claim ownership disputes is well aware of the state Supreme Court decision and “does think it could be useful.”

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]


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