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Feds purchase marble quarry in wilderness

A decade-old conundrum that threatened to result in the creation of a marble quarry in the popular Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness has finally been solved.

The U.S. government recently closed on a deal to buy a 472-acre inholding in the Conundrum Creek Valley southwest of Aspen.

Taxpayers paid about $4.1 million to acquire the mineral rights to the property, according to deeds recorded Thursday in the Pitkin County Clerk’s office.

Ownership of the mineral rights were split between former Aspenite Ed Smart, now of Bluff, Utah, and the Conundrum Marble Mining Limited Liability Co., whose president is Richard D. Shoenfeld of Florida.

Smart received $2.1 million for his mineral and timber rights on the California, Vera, Vermont and Edith M. placer mining claims, according to the recorded deeds.

Conundrum Marble Mining LLC received $2,081,250 for its rights on those same claims. Snuffs threat of mining The significance of the acquisition is it snuffs the potential for a marble mining operation in a wilderness area, as well as the threat of trucks and heavy equipment using one of the most popular hiking routes around Aspen.

The inholding is located about 2 miles south of the trailhead that leads to the Conundrum Hot Springs.

The best minerals were limited to about 4.5 acres of the land.

“It’s 100 percent owned now, to my knowledge,” said Al Grimshaw, a lands acquisition expert in the U.S. Forest Service’s Aspen Ranger District. “Since it is in wilderness, all [future activities] fall within the Wilderness Act.”

The late Stefan Albouy dreamed of mining the site for marble after he acquired a 50 percent interest in 1985. Although the dream wasn’t shared by Smart, Albouy’s Conundrum Marble Mining geared up for work in the late 1980s after acquiring state and federal approvals.

Pitkin County government intervened and received an injunction that shut the operation down before extensive work began.

The controversy received extensive national attention because it involved federal wilderness, where mechanized uses are typically banned.

Former U.S. Sen. Tim Wirth of Colorado once called Albouy and his partners a modern-day version of Old West bandits over the Conundrum controversy. He suggested they were holding the public hostage with the threat of mining in hopes of selling the land.

Albouy, an Aspen native and mining enthusiast, vehemently denied the claims.

Albouy passed away in June 1994, but his successors in Conundrum Marble Mining LLC waged a court battle over the extent of Pitkin County’s review powers. Option signed last year The Forest Service realized preventing mining could prove impossible, so it signed a one-year option Jan. 13, 1998, to buy the mineral and timber rights.

The acquisition of the Conundrum Valley mineral rights was ranked the No. 1 priority in the agency’s Rocky Mountain region.

Smart told The Aspen Times last fall that he had a change of heart and didn’t want to sell his half-interest. He claimed taxpayers were getting soaked because the property wasn’t worth what the government was willing to pay.

Federal officials, however, said the option agreement was binding as long as the Forest Service could close within one year. The deal was finally closed Dec. 23 in Denver. Funds were appropriated by Congress through the Land and Water Conservation Act.

Howard Gelt, a Denver attorney representing Conundrum Marble Mining LLC, couldn’t be reached for comment about the sale last weekend.

The Forest Service was keeping a low profile about its purchase. Grimshaw said no announcements had been made about the deal by the agency’s Washington, D.C., or Denver offices. The Aspen District is in the process of informing local governments about the deal, he said.

It’s unknown if the Aspen District will hold any ceremony marking the purchase.


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