Battle erupts over Crystal mine
December 13, 2005
The government has accused one of the last miners in Pitkin County of putting historic artifacts and natural resources at risk by rooting around an old mine in the shadow of Mount Sopris. But miner Robert Congdon counters that it is the U.S. Forest Service that is being irresponsible by letting items like ore cars, rails and hand tools rot without making an effort at historic preservation. He claims he was acting within his rights and with good intentions.The dispute is over the Maree Love mine, tucked in a minor drainage in the Crystal Valley. Congdon rediscovered the abandoned mine in the early 1980s even though its three adits, or passageways, had collapsed. His research showed it was probably established as a gold mine in the late 1880s, then converted to a lead mine. Iron oxides were pulled out as late as the 1950s.Then it was abruptly abandoned and forgotten. The Aspen Times reported after a January 1993 visit to the mine that it looked like workers walked off the job one day expecting to return but never made it back. Tools were scattered in the adits and shafts. Ore cars sat on rails inside and out. Old ladders still hung in place.Congdon, who came to the Carbondale area in 1978 as a coal miner, got interested in the site while trying to find a vapor cave rumored to be in the area. His hunch proved correct. The mine connects with a large cave that has sections where geothermal activity sends temperatures soaring.
Congdon holds an unpatented mining claim on 20 acres at the Maree Love, giving him access to the subsurface minerals. The Forest Service holds the surface rights. Their fight is over the extent of Congdon’s powers as the mineral owner.He claims that in 1986 he filed an official outline, called a notice of intent, of the work he planned to undertake. Aspen District Ranger Bill Westbrook said the handwritten, three-paragraph notice is inadequate and fails to provide the Forest Service with enough information to perform a review.Congdon was ordered in 2004 to cease and desist all activities at the mine after the Forest Service discovered he cleared roads to the site, dug the collapsed entrances and rebuilt a collapsed shed outside the mine using old wood and new lumber.Westbrook said the Forest Service wants to complete an inventory of the historic artifacts before any more work is performed. The agency also wants to assess how extensively Townsend’s big-eared bats, an imperiled species, uses the cave as a habitat. One of the largest colonies of the bat in Colorado and possibly in the United States is there, according to Forest Service officials.”We have concerns up there,” Westbrook said.The Forest Service told Congdon in a meeting earlier this year to remove the structure he built, remove a skid loader and boom truck he had at the mine, reclaim road work he performed and make sure artifacts were left as they were found.
When he didn’t meet the feds’ deadline to perform those tasks, he was issued another cease-and-desist letter and warned that his equipment would be impounded if he didn’t act.Forest Service law enforcement officers tracked Congdon down at his New Castle residence and issued him three citations for his work at the mine. A fourth charge of interfering with a federal officer followed when tensions erupted during that meeting.”It was difficult. I don’t know how else to say it,” Westbrook said. Westbrook wasn’t there, but the officers told him Congdon was upset over the citations.Congdon said he felt the Forest Service used heavy-handed tactics that were out of line. He said he was charged with interfering with a federal officer after he went into his house and came back with a video camera to record the agency’s actions. He said he also called the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office so someone could witness what was happening.”I feel like Big Brother is alive and well, and they’ve got guns,” Congdon said.
He was ordered to appear later this month before a U.S. magistrate in Grand Junction. He said he will hire an attorney and fight the charges. He predicted he will prevail and that a judge will rule his work at the Maree Love was done lawfully.”Maybe this is what needed to happen,” he said. He stressed that he wants to offer limited tours to the site and into the mine, but he doesn’t plan commercial mining there.Congdon said the Forest Service and Pitkin County have conspired to try to block his access to the mine. He contends a public route leads to the site, and he says he complied with the order to cease surface work in 2004.He also complied by removing his skid loader this winter. Congdon said that order could backfire on federal officials because he’s used that loader to reopen entrances to the cave after mudslides blocked them and threatened to kill the bats.This is the second scrape between the Forest Service and Congdon. They are also fighting over his ability to mine alabaster and marble from the White Banks Mine, just a few miles from the Maree Love. Congdon contends he has the approvals he needs for that operation. The Forest Service asked him to resubmit a plan.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org