Alabaster mine stalled over bighorn sheep dispute
November 5, 2011
CARBONDALE – A controversial alabaster mine sitting dormant south of Carbondale could be back in business, depending on a looming decision by the U.S. Forest Service weighing the mine’s impact on bighorn sheep.
The Mystic Eagle Mine, dormant since 2003, has tons of alabaster, a stone prized by sculptors and used in coffee tables and bathroom vanity tops. The mine has new owners who want to resume production, but they say they can’t do business with strict seasonal closures from the Forest Service. Others are pressuring the Forest Service to protect a dwindling bighorn sheep population in the Avalanche Creek area, where the mine is located.
The (Grand Junction) Sentinel reports that a decision on mine operations is expected by Scott Snelson, district ranger for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District, possibly as soon as this month.
The decision could bring an end to a long debate over mining and sheep in the area.
Pitkin County commissioners and a nearby neighborhood oppose the mine or want alabaster mining limited to protect the sheep. Opposition has also come from 11 environmental groups, which wrote that allowing winter operations “would involve habitat loss and increased human disturbance, two important contributors to declining bighorn populations.”
The groups said the mine needs to be considered in the context of Avalanche Creek being “a gateway to wilderness, a place for quiet recreation during warmer months, and a sanctuary for wildlife in snowy seasons.”
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Nearby Swiss Village resident Kelly Griggs wrote, “I have lived in Swiss Village for 9 years now and can’t imagine having to live here with a full scale mining operation so close to my home and where I walk up to four times a week. I would have never bought the property I live on if I knew this was going to happen, and it is not possible to sell and move away in this current economy.”
Already, a population of about 220 sheep has fallen to about 65 over the past 15 years, Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials estimate. Those sheep historically use the lower elevations of the Avalanche Creek each year once they are driven from higher elevations by snow, and until early summer, after lambing.
The population using the area just above the mine during the winter has plummeted from about 75 to 15.
Mine owners, led by Glenwood Springs attorney Walt Brown, say the alabaster mine isn’t to blame.
“That’s not a decline due to anything we’ve done,” he said.
Brown said the mine could employ seven people, but won’t open without year-round access. Brown is pushing for year-round operations, but the U.S. Forest Service also is considering its own alternative that would confine operations to May 1 through Nov. 30.
“We can’t run the business that way,” Brown said. “I don’t know any business except skiing that operates six or seven months (a year).”
Brown said assumptions are being made about the mine’s potential impacts on sheep, and they are being seized upon by environmentalists, Pitkin County and some area residents whose ulterior goal is to keep it closed.
“They don’t want anything up there, nothing. They just want it left pristine,” Brown said.