Feds earn upper handin mining claims dispute
An ownership battle over 51 patented mining claims scattered among some of the most scenic terrain around Aspen has been resolved in favor of the U.S. Forest Service and Pitkin County.A U.S. magistrate judge ruled last week against six people who filed lawsuits alleging that Pitkin County had unlawfully claimed ownership of their property, then swapped that land with the feds.In each case, the plaintiffs contended that their property was among thousands of acres of land that Pitkin County traded to the Forest Service to acquire 125 acres at the Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel in the mid-1990s.All 51 cases were filed by Aspen attorney Gary Wright. He and the U.S. Attorney General’s office picked six cases that were used as a litmus test to settle all 51 lawsuits. The judge ruled in favor of the governments in all six litmus tests.”It just sort of slams the door on these guys six doors to Sunday,” said Pitkin County Attorney John Ely.Roots trace to silver crashWright, on behalf of his clients, claimed Pitkin County didn’t have valid claims to ownership of the properties because it held flawed tax sales in the early 1900s. After the silver crash of 1893, landowners often abandoned their mining claims and sought their fortunes elsewhere.The county treasurer was supposed to hold a public auction for the property on dates specified by the state. The overwhelmed treasurer in the down-and-out county didn’t always hold them at the appointed times. And even when auctions were held, no one bid on what was considered useless ground.Eventually – often decades later – the treasurer’s office got around to issuing treasurer’s deeds for the mining claims to Pitkin County government.Wright argued that the issuance of those deeds was invalid because the sales weren’t properly conducted.But Judge Michael J. Watanabe ruled that in each of the six cases, Wright failed to show how his clients had an interest in the tax sales of the early 1900s or the issuance of the treasurer’s deeds.”Plaintiff cannot rely on any weakness in the government’s title but instead must prove the strength of his own title,” the judge’s order said.’Wild deeds’ used to claim ownership The judge found that the plaintiffs’ claim to the property started with “wild deeds” that cannot be traced to anyone or any entity in the chain of record title. In some of the cases, those wild deeds originated with Jim Blanning and companies he created. Blanning was convicted of fraud and sentenced to time in prison for similar land scams.”These guys clearly didn’t have an interest in anything going on,” said Ely. He believes the decisions in the six litmus cases will lead to the resolution of all 50 lawsuits. “Once you have a couple of wins … these cases can be cited.”Pitkin County wasn’t a direct participant in the litigation but had huge stakes in the outcome. The congressional act which approved the land swap for the tree farm said the county had to compensate the U.S. government in some way should it turn out that it didn’t own all the land used in the swap.That would have meant the county needed to find replacement land to trade to make the deal whole, it would have to compensate the landowners for the land that was traded, or it would have been forced to nullify the trade.Nullifying the deal would be difficult since the old tree farm is the centerpiece to the midvalley’s recreation facilities. Numerous sports fields and park lands are being developed there.The lawsuit also had major implications on development of the backcountry around Aspen. For that reason, it attracted the interest of the Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Aspen Valley Land Trust, Wilderness Watch and the Wilderness Society, a national heavyweight. The environmental groups teamed with Aspen-based Public Counsel of the Rockies to hire an attorney that worked closely with the U.S. Attorney General’s office on the cases.Tim McFlynn, director of Public Counsel, said some of the land at the center of the dispute was in wilderness areas and favorite backcountry playgrounds around Aspen.For example, one of the litmus cases was over ownership of the 10-acre Black Eagle Lode Mining Claim 14 miles south of Aspen within the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness. That land is at the headwaters of Montezuma Basin.The county has operated it as open space since 1976, but ownership was also claimed by Karen Kunze, as an authorized representative of the heirs of Thomas Quayle.Another of the disputed properties was the Hayford patented mining claim, a 10-acre piece one mile south of the Sundeck. Another was over the Franklin Lode Mining Claim, 7.57 acres of land a mile north of Lenado.If the governments had lost the cases, McFlynn said, it could have resulted in some level of development on the Franklin and Hayford claims. And even if the Montezuma Basin property was too isolated for major development, the threat could have forced conservation groups to purchase the land, he said.Public Counsel hired Denver attorney Lori Potter to work on behalf of the conservation groups in the cases. Potter is a former director of the Sierra Club’s Legal Defense Fund.Assistant U.S. Attorney Roxanne Perrusso handled the case for the feds. She was unavailable for comment Friday. Jeff Dorschner, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said officials there expect all other cases to be resolved similarly “with the rulings going our way.”The feds have another advantage in resolving the remaining cases. Watanabe ruled the U.S. government can apply to recover attorney’s fees and legal costs in the six litmus cases. That’s allowed under the congressional act that cleared the way for the tree farm land swap.Wright confirmed Friday that the orders went against his clients. He said he hadn’t thoroughly reviewed the orders yet so he couldn’t comment on the broader implications.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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