Judge stops green groups from joining mining feud | AspenTimes.com

Judge stops green groups from joining mining feud

Four environmental groups were told by a federal judge recently to butt out of a legal dispute over ownership of a patented mining claim in wilderness around Aspen.

Two local conservation groups and two national organizations tried to intervene in a lawsuit designed to determine the owner of a mining claim in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness.

The four groups – Aspen Wilderness Workshop, Aspen Valley Land Trust, the Wilderness Society and Wilderness Watch – contended so much was at stake that they should be allowed to participate.

Their effort to intervene in one case could have affected 47 other similar lawsuits pending in federal court in Denver. All of the lawsuits involve disputes over land surrounded by wilderness or national forest.

The green groups fear cabins could be developed on the land as well as new roads to the cabins.

The individuals in those cases claim they were cheated out of their land in a 1994 property exchange between Pitkin County and the U.S. Forest Service. They claimed Pitkin County used property owned by them in an exchange for the Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel.

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The county traded 267 patented mining claims totaling 1,258 acres to the U.S. Forest Service. In return, Pitkin and Eagle counties acquired 125 acres at the Mount Sopris Tree Farm from the feds.

The individuals are now trying to prove they have better title than Pitkin County and, thus, the federal government.

The conservation groups claimed in their motion to intervene in the Karen Kunze vs. United States case that the federal government “cannot or will not adequately represent their interests.”

They argued that the federal government has incentive to compromise rather than fight a drawn-out court battle. If the federal government loses, Pitkin County is responsible for reimbursing it for the value of the real estate – either through cash or other land.

Federal Judge O. Edward Schlatter rejected the green groups’ argument.

“I fail to see how defendants would be less motivated to protect the Maroon Bells simply because they may be reimbursed for their loss in the event that the plaintiffs prevail,” the judge said in his ruling.

“In the grand scheme of things in this lawsuit, the interest of the (federal government) and (conservation groups) are identical,” Schlatter wrote.

Gary Wright, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in the 48 cases, tried to block the environmental groups from entering the case, arguing that would make settlement more difficult.

“I’m very pleased to be in federal court, where there is minimal political influence and the court makes a learned effort to do the right thing,” said Wright. “I think this is the right thing.”

A prepared statement by Lori Potter, co-counsel for the environmental groups, claimed that the magistrate’s decision was a “preliminary finding that does not exhaust our ability to participate” in the other ownership dispute lawsuits.

“We still have the ability to convince the judge that our involvement is needed both in some or all of the remaining 47 cases, and in the Kunze case itself,” Potter wrote. “Furthermore, we believe we can show that the reason for the denial of our intervention is based on a misunderstanding of the law.”

She said the magistrate’s decision indicated the conservation groups do have interests that would be harmed if the individuals prevail in the ownership disputes.

That gives the groups “all the more reason to continue our fight” to keep the mining claims in public hands, Potter wrote.

Potter is co-council for the environmental groups along with Jamey Fidel, an attorney for Public Counsel of the Rockies and staff worker for the Aspen Wilderness Workshop.

No settlement of the cases is expected soon.

The federal government and the individuals who filed the lawsuits have agreed, in essence, to use eight of the 48 cases as litmus tests. Legal proceedings are taking place in only eight of the cases while the others are on administrative hold.

Judge Schlatter said the ownership dispute appears to be straightforward.

“This is not a case that turns upon any policy issues to be addressed by the court,” he wrote. “This is a fairly ordinance quiet title action in which plaintiffs argue that they have superior claims to the real estate that is in dispute primarily because Pitkin County failed to follow the proper procedures to divest them of their original ownership …”

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