Avalanche Creek mine inches toward operation | AspenTimes.com

Avalanche Creek mine inches toward operation

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado

CARBONDALE -The latest decision in a convoluted series of rulings and appeals regarding operation of an alabaster and marble mine in the Crystal River Valley may pave the way for mining activity sooner rather than later.

Brian Ferebee, deputy regional forester for resources with the U.S. Forest Service, has declined to exercise discretionary review of a prior decision that, in essence, rejected limitations on wintertime operations at the White Banks Mine in order to protect bighorn sheep.

In the prior decision, issued in early August, review officer Sherry Hazelhurst found there wasn’t adequate evidence that the mine, also known as the Mystic Eagle Mine, would have enough of an impact on bighorn sheep to justify the conditions placed on the operation by Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson.

Walt Brown, a Glenwood Springs attorney and partner in Elbram Stone Co. LLC, which owns the mine, received word of Ferebee’s decision last week and said he hopes the end result is the resumption of mining activity in what would be Pitkin County’s only working, underground mine.

“The fact that the regional forester declined to review it tells me the decision that was made by Ms. Hazelhurst stands,” Brown said Tuesday.

Last March, Snelson decided that the mine must cease operations and remove all equipment before Nov. 30 of each year. Foot traffic at the mine also was banned from Jan. 16 to March 15. The decision also required the mine owners to work with the Forest Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife on a five-year monitoring program to establish bighorn sheep populations in the area. It would allow limited winter mining if it could be established that the sheep population was stable.

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Snelson said Tuesday that he will issue a new decision, given Hazelhurst’s ruling.

“What we need to do is figure out what we’re going to do in the interim,” he said.

Regardless of what comes next from the Forest Service, Brown said it’s not possible to begin extracting materials from the mine this winter. He has set his sights on a spring start, as equipment needs to be put in running order and miners need to be hired.

“All these guys have to be qualified. They’re not just bums off the street,” he said.

“What I’m hoping is the Forest Service will consider the application rationally and make a decision quickly,” Brown said.

The mine has received incremental extensions of its old permit during the review process, according to Brown, and some work has occurred there this summer to maintain equipment and clear out junk, he said.

Meanwhile, according to Brown, the mine continues to field inquiries about obtaining its stone for both interior finishes and sculpting. Artists from as far away as Alaska are interested, he said.

“We’ve got a real resurgence in demand for both the alabaster and the marble,” he said. “The biggest demand, believe it or not, is the art market.

“There’s a market, if we can just get production going.”

The mine is along Avalanche Creek Road, a short distance off Highway 133 and about 11.5 miles south of Carbondale, in rural Pitkin County.

It has been roughly a decade since mining of materials last occurred there, and the mine has changed hands in the interim. The mine’s Forest Service permit expired in 2010, triggering a new application that sought year-round operations under a 20-year permit. The application resulted in an environmental assessment and Snelson’s initial decision, which set limitations on wintertime activities and limited the permit to five years unless the mining company agreed to the bighorn sheep study.

Elbram Stone Co. appealed, and Pitkin County government filed a separate, limited appeal, objecting to any mining activity in the months of December through April. The county took issue with the potential for winter operations depending on the outcome of monitoring the bighorn population.

“The mine is located in a bighorn sheep winter concentration area,” the county’s appeal said. “Indeed, sheep congregate on the hillside directly above the mine portal during winter months. It is known that this sheep herd is stressed and is in serious decline. Pitkin County has consistently recommended a continued prohibition of winter operations as a condition of any Forest Service approval. We feel there should be no operations at all permitted in the months of December through April.”

Brown countered that the sheep population has been in decline even without mining activity, suggesting the mine has not had an impact on the animals. Hazelhurst, in her decision, said the mining company had no financial responsibility to determine why bighorn sheep numbers in the broader area were in decline at a time when mining had ceased.

While Hazelhurst sided with the mining company in rejecting Snelson’s decision, a different appeal officer, Dan Dallas, forest supervisor for the Rio Grande National Forest, rejected the county’s appeal. Dallas said the effect of mining on wintering bighorn sheep had been considered in Snelson’s decision.

janet@aspentimes.com

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