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Crested Butte: The Town That Said, ‘Hell, No!’

An excerpt from Paul Andersen's new book about Crested Butte's battle to save its soul

Paul Andersen
For the Aspen Times Weekly
IF YOU GO …

What: Paul Andersen ‘The Town That Said, “Hell, No!” book-signing

Where: Explore Booksellers

When: Saturday, April 2, 5 p.m.

More info: explorebooksellers.com


Aspen Times reporter Paul Andersen was on the ground in Crested Butte in the late 1970s and early 1980s as locals beat back an aggressive industrial mining operation by the international corporation AMAX. This remote mountain town and the disparate and eccentric community it nurtured refused the dictates of Big Business and Big Brother when the town said a firm and resounding “NO!”

In a new book, Andersen looks back and tells the story of the five-year AMAX siege in Crested Butte and the ragtag insurgency that saved the town and changed the lives of its citizenry. In this excerpt, Andersen defines the opposing values and beliefs on each side of the fight as this nonconformist corner of rural America defended itself against corporate predation in the American West.

*



Reporting on the AMAX proposal gave me a front row seat to an exercise in civics, political science, sociology, land use policy, extractive industries and environmentalism.

Here was my master’s curriculum for a hands-on graduate program that was far from theoretical. Not surprisingly, Harvard University decided the same. Several years into the Mt. Emmons Project, a group of master’s students from Harvard came to town and applied the Crested Butte/AMAX conflict to their own graduate program. They used the mine issue as the basis for a real-life study of a community in turmoil from the external forces of capitalism and industrialization.




At stake was the AMAX proposal to extract up to 300 million tons of molybdenum ore from Mt. Emmons, a mountain three miles west of Crested Butte noted for Red Lady Bowl, a red-tinged, high mountain basin. This enormous industrial process would have defaced the Red Lady and forever changed Crested Butte from a small mountain resort town into an industrialized mining zone with countless environmental impacts across thousands of acres of public lands.

Crested Butte fought the mine on many fronts, but mainly through the Forest Service approval process and in the courts by gaining expertise and summoning community spirit unlike anything the town had ever before experienced.

What happened in Crested Butte was certainly educational, not only for Harvard, but for us townspeople. It was also incredibly entertaining because of the glaring divergence of values represented by the combatants. Not only was Crested Butte defined by a rigorous testing of municipal autonomy and self-determination, but we who were part of the experience were changed and defined by the issues confronting us. AMAX had no idea of the hornets’ nest it was stirring by awakening and radicalizing the town. The once sleepy community came out of hibernation, and it was AMAX that brought it out.

AMAX and Crested Butte were distanced by a huge ideological rift, a cultural, spiritual and values-driven divergence as great as any in America in the 1970s. The town staked claim to the fringe of American culture while AMAX represented the mainstream military-industrial complex and the globalization of the commons.

(Getty Images)

Despite AMAX overtures of economic viability for the town, Crested Butte was no unsophisticated backwater craving a regular payroll doled out by a glad-handing corporate patron. The town thrived on social diversity thanks to creative, thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive, enterprising citizens who had assembled by chance in the cul-de-sac at the end of Highway 135. Most of us young townspeople had readily adapted to a kicked-back, easy-going and, in some ways, indolent lifestyle complemented by an irrepressible penchant for athletic exploits and liberated ways of life. Thanks to AMAX, that diversity would coalesce into a dynamic force as the proposed mine became the impetus for a kind of sociological gelling. The populace became activated to the cause the way a yeast culture reacts to sugar. Clearly, AMAX got a rise out of Crested Butte.

Driving this growing passion was Crested Butte’s widespread and often vocal disdain for the feckless exploitation of what most residents considered hallowed ground. Crested Butte, whose identity was humble, organic, and grassroots, seemed determined to hold off the lure of big money in preference for a soulful embrace of the Platonic ideal of the good, the true, and the beautiful. The mien of the town was the antipathy of the Machiavellian triad of money, fame and power. Most residents favored a balance of community and commodity that weighed far more heavily on community, with the emphasis on “unity.”

AMAX represented a blatant assault on that united sensibility by exploiting the commodity geologists had identified in Mt. Emmons. Enriching the town materially, as AMAX promised, would follow only as AMAX enriched itself. The hierarchy AMAX was trying to install in Crested Butte put AMAX at the top and left the townsfolk somewhere below. Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding by AMAX was the notion that material wealth could be used as a lever to integrate the townspeople into the company’s culture. That was a deeply flawed projection of the corporation’s own value structure.

In 1977, Crested Butte’s so-called economy was based on nominal income from tourism and recreation. For most residents, subsistence living was fine. Getting rich was not why people moved here. That consensus was stated with a disparaging comparison to “Glitter Gulch” on the other side of the Elk Range: “We don’t want to be another Aspen!” The so-called threat of “Aspenization,” the commercial sell-out of the town, was the biggest threat Crested Butte had faced until AMAX. A limited tourist trade had replaced coal mining as the town’s lifeblood, and that was deemed good because tourism was clean, neat, sustainable, and, best of all, seasonal.

“Crested Butte: Love it by Leaving it the Way You Found it,” was a town credo printed on posters as a plea for self-restraint from defiling the purity of nature and community. It was also a warning against killing the goose that had laid the golden egg.

NOTEWORTHY


‘The Town That Said, “Hell, No!”: Crested Butte Fights a Mine to Save Its Soul’

Paul Andersen

286 pages, paperback $24.95

Roaring Fork Press, 2022

At first, AMAX failed to apprehend the town’s non-material ethic. The mining company dangled the wrong carrot. Community interests were not about industrial development, strategic metals, patriotic fervor or careers in mining. The town’s interests were certainly not about underwriting the consumer-based American Dream. Rather, the town was aligned with non-material values as a necessary offset to the flashier, commercial culture of lift-served skiing at Mt. Crested Butte, the ski area town four miles to the north. By cluelessly praising the motives inherent in its bottom line-shareholder-corporate mentality, AMAX threatened Crested Butte’s essence. AMAX had artlessly summoned the status quo, from which many of us in Crested Butte had sought to escape by living there in the first place and celebrating the town’s independent, laid-back, funky, libertarian, sensual, and occasionally misanthropic lifestyle.

Crested Butte’s social contract was based on intimacy, and nothing could be more intimate than nude, co-ed bathing at Sunshine’s Paradise Bathhouse. Here was the town’s communal baptism—“a place where you could see more of your friends.” The Bathhouse, long since closed, offered regular christenings among the unfettered and unclothed populace. Nakedness became rather commonplace and, in a healthy way, removed some of the gender stigma with which American society seems to be so titillated. Curiosity was satisfied, which was usually as far as it went.

The author getting into hot water with Sunshine Williams, proprietress of the popular Sunshine’s Paradise Bathhouse in the era of the AMAX battle. (Courtesy Paul Andersen/Crested Butte Chronicle archive)

Communal spirit was equally nurtured by familiarity in the bars, shops, restaurants, ski runs and at the post office. That spirit was also embodied in the pristine landscapes of the Elk Range where townsfolk practiced the transcendentalist ideal of Emerson and Thoreau. Crested Butte was “Walden” writ large on the western landscape. Like Thoreau, the townspeople often displayed a fierce aversion to the overbearing culture of the outside world, even if, like Thoreau, they ironically depended on it for conveniences and basic necessities.

Crested Butte had become a refuge for mostly urban refugees who had broken from the orbit of the post-World War II suburban sprawl of modern industrial life. “Let us be lovers, we’ll marry our fortunes together,” sang Simon and Garfunkel, “we’ve all gone to look for Amer-i-ca.” As new immigrants who were routinely lumped together as “hippies,” we newcomers were intruders ourselves into a traditional social fabric that had existed long before our arrival.

The seemingly quaint and contented “old-timers” had shaped Crested Butte on completely different terms as coal miners, and yet they were hospitable. For upstart Baby Boomers to now pull up the drawbridge on AMAX and thwart a reversion to the town’s mining past violated traditional values some old-timers still held dear. By taking a stand against the mine, the new guard could be seen as selfish, myopic and hypocritical of traditional values. Some of the town’s old guard accused us of being disrespectful of the mining way of life made heroic by local coal miners who had endured incommunicable travails underground.

But power was in the politics. By the late 1970s, opponents of the mine comprised the majority of the town’s electorate. We outnumbered the old-timers and were fired up with self-righteous fervor. We saw our motivation as pure, especially given the blatantly transparent objectives of AMAX. We “radicals” sincerely believed that our refutation of AMAX was in the best interests, not only of ourselves and our adopted home, but of the larger American culture that was soon to be knocking at our door. We had assumed the role of self-appointed stewards of a national treasure as defined by a vibrant community set in a landscape of unparalleled natural beauty and ecological purity. The worth of these values was incalculable in economic terms, so preserving them was a service to the greater society, which had no calculus for assessing scenic value, community spirit, or natural capital. We bold, new activists saw AMAX as an imperial juggernaut looking for one thing only—profits—at the expense of what we called our sense of place.

Jubilant citizens of Crested Butte celebrate their victory over the international mining corporation, AMAX, in 1983. (Courtesy Paul Andersen/Crested Buttle Chronicle archive)

On a larger stage, the fight against AMAX equated with a plea for the health of the biosphere against the appetites of modern man. By comparison with much of the outside world, Crested Butte was a utopia, an unspoiled haven, where Mother Nature asserted herself with splendor, grace and compelling spiritual force. Once the values of the town were clearly defined and personally imbued, most of the townspeople vowed not to allow our coveted backyard to become a sacrifice zone. In this, we became unrepentant and unapologetic NIMBYs who would hold back the barbarians at the gates.

Despite the town’s backwoods ambiance and quasi-rustic citizens, many of Crested Butte’s transplants understood the high-stakes game AMAX was playing. The citizenry may have appeared backward, but we were not provincial, many of us having grown up in cities where we had witnessed the potent effects of industrial and commercial influences that had defined American society during the disillusioned post-Vietnam, Cold War and Civil Rights eras. Many who had flocked to Crested Butte had rejected the dictates of oppressive social strictures, seeking instead peace and harmony in the sheltering mountains, or at least to discover if those things were still possible. In Crested Butte, we found solace. We were protected from a world we distrusted and often disdained, a world that AMAX now wanted to lay at our doorstep, purportedly as a gift.

With a martial spirit similar to the farmers at Lexington-Concord two centuries before, the town quickly girded itself for battle. Lines were drawn, alliances formed, commitments made, vows pledged, all with the rapidity of coagulating blood. The issue was painted simplistically in black and white, right and wrong, good and evil, which was necessary for rapid mobilization. The majority of Crested Butte’s citizens allied ourselves to an unyielding set of principles that comprised an agreed upon moral code. Fighting the mine was the right thing to do.

AMAX, in its pledge for sophistication and innovation, had promised to build a “state-of-the-art” mine and to do “the best job possible.” To Crested Butte, however, the Mt. Emmons Project implied the wholesale destruction of a mountain, a river drainage, a valley, a people, a spirit. Crested Butte mayor W Mitchell put it like this: “AMAX says it is going to do the best possible job on something that should never be done in the first place.” There would be no compromise with AMAX. The conflict of values was irreconcilable.

Crested Butte Mayor Mitchell – “the wheelchair mayor” – cheering the defeat of AMAX atop Mt. Emmons with anti-mine advocate Don Bachman. (Courtesy Paul Andersen/Crested Butte Chronicle archive)

“Quality of life” became the loaded expression that established a bulwark against the mine. It implied a “Small is Beautiful” belief system that validated Crested Butte as the outpatient clinic Town planner Myles Rademan had laughingly described. Quality of life was seen as an antidote to the conformity of mass culture. Implied was a rural identity that stipulated living lightly on the land. Crested Butte’s vaunted quality of life was fashioned from the Jeffersonian ideal of the philosopher farmer, a frontier, pioneering community made up of educated, acculturated, autonomous individuals. These small town qualities of Jeffersonian America would not be co-opted by drill rigs, bulldozers, ore-crushers, tailings piles, and corporate executives wearing plaid pants.

Town attorney Wes Light, in a 1979 interview, remarked that people were then attracted to Crested Butte because of high standards of living, not measured by material wealth or income, but by the comforting warmth of a small town and the blessings of natural beauty. “Some people are more concerned with money than with quality of life,” he allowed, “but it would be ironic for people to come here for the money, only to have to look elsewhere for quality of life.”

(Getty Images)

Crested Butte, like most communities, was neither uniform nor pure, and there were plenty of ironies. Critics routinely dismissed the town as dystopian and dysfunctional. The town had feuds, bar fights, drunkenness, drug abuse, loneliness, exclusion, suicide, adultery, carousing and debaucheries of many kinds. Because of a disproportionately large population of men than women, it was said that you didn’t lose your girlfriend, you just lost your turn.

Crested Butte had its share of cranks, malcontents and sociopaths. Some residents were passionate in their embrace of liberty, which they defined most openly by allowing their dogs to run free in packs and poop on your lawn. Some felt that the absence of stoplights and traffic severed all bonds to American life, that living in the midst of the mountains freed them from civic authority, the responsibilities of citizenship, and from civilization itself. There was no Leviathan ruling over Crested Butte, the absence of which invited anarchy or, in the extreme, nihilism.

Independence, Crested Butte-style, could translate into carving your own set of ski tracks through deep powder snow. Freedom meant fishing in a clear mountain stream. Liberty meant mountain biking single-track trails. Quality of life in Crested Butte was a nebulous notion defined by myriad perspectives. For many, Crested Butte was a paradise. For critics, it was an absurdly faulted social experiment. For most townspeople, it wavered between the two extremes. Somewhere in the middle, at the intersection of practicality and idealism, truth and myth, was the place we called home.

But what kind of home was it? Housing was uncertain. Most jobs were neither lucrative nor glamorous. Winters lasted eight months. Roads were sometimes impassable. Snowdrifts reached higher than the rooftops. One could feel claustrophobic and isolated in the depths of the arctic chill that could hit 40 below zero. People got sick. People died. Some suffered depression, addiction, alcoholism. Some took their own lives. Most of the townspeople had to work to pay rent, cover utilities, meet medical expenses, buy a drink or an occasional dinner out, and put gas in the car. Life was real, no matter how distant one might feel from the gravitational pull of “the real world.” Neighbors could be loving and friendly, charming and eccentric, despondent and hostile. There were plenty of societal castaways in this high altitude “Gilligan’s Island.”

If you made it through half a dozen Crested Butte winters, you earned respect and were accepted. You had become a “local” by matching the stoicism portrayed by the hard bitten coal miners and ranchers. Many young immigrants aspired to nothing more than a sense of acceptance in a town where life was physically and psychologically demanding. It sometimes seemed that we neo-pioneers, with our urban or suburban backgrounds, were merely role playing on a turn-of-the-century stage set, scripted to a fantasy life.

A molybdenum mine did not fit that fantasy, but it did something surprisingly constructive. By fomenting united opposition, AMAX focused residents on a unifying need. It leavened a rough, uncultured dough and produced something wholesome from the collective ingredients. As AMAX attorney Art Biddle quipped during an interview 30 years later, “We always thought we were great intellectual stimulation for Crested Butte.”

Biddle was right. AMAX prompted a serious intellectual exercise in the formerly torpid minds of many townsfolk. If anything, the quality of life improved as these fertile minds reacted to the challenge before them. The mission of defeating the mine enriched and deepened the social and civil dynamic. Apathy vanished. Emotions became more buoyant. Creativity surged. Camaraderie was infused. The crusade mentality bolstered newly empowered activists from a recondite mob to a communal outpouring for concerted action. In short, AMAX catalyzed Crested Butte into a proud, united and refreshingly eccentric adversary for whom the prevailing mood was: “Bring it on!”


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