Miner a casualty of the ‘New West’
December 20, 2006
Aspen, CO ColoradoCRYSTAL VALLEY One of the last miners in Pitkin County considers himself a casualty in the transition of the Old West into the New West.Robert Congdon on Tuesday settled a dispute with the U.S. Forest Service, which might prevent him accessing a mine in the Crystal Valley that he rediscovered 20 years ago on the lower slopes of Mount Sopris. He wants the Maree Love Mine preserved as an important piece of the area’s history.Congdon said he agreed to plead guilty to two charges – damaging natural features and maintaining or constructing a structure. In return, charges of interfering with a law enforcement officer and damaging a historical structure will be dropped.The plea bargain couldn’t be confirmed Wednesday with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is prosecuting the case for the Forest Service.The Forest Service pursued charges against Congdon in December 2005 because agency officials felt his work put natural and historic resources at risk. A colony of rare Townsend’s big-eared bats took up residence in the mine and the feds felt mining activity could bring them harm. The area is also sprinkled with mining relics that date to the late 1800s.Congdon holds an unpatented mining claim on the 20-acre Maree Love, giving him the right to mine the subsurface minerals. The Forest Service owns the surface rights. The claim is near the Penny Hot Springs, about six miles north of Redstone.Congdon has maintained for the last year that his intent was to preserve the mining history at the site and possibly guide limited tours. Research indicates that lead, zinc and copper were pulled out of an upper mine on the claim. Iron oxides used in paints and stains were pulled out of the lower mine. The lower mine was worked as recently as the 1950s or ’60s.Congdon said mining relics such as ore cars, picks and ladders are rotting because the Forest Service hasn’t taken the initiative to preserve them. The agency is so strapped for cash that it had to contract out operation of its campgrounds, so it appears incapable of historic preservation, he said.Forest Service officials didn’t return phone calls Wednesday for comment. The assistant U.S. attorney handling the case was unavailable.One of the charges against Congdon stemmed from his use of new lumber to shore up a historic shed on the site. The shed was crumbling because of exposure to the elements and lack of maintenance.As for the bats, Congdon views himself somewhat as their guardian. His reopening of the mine entrance in the early 1980s established the habitat, he said. Congdon also used a backhoe to dig out the entrance of the mine after a mudslide closed it, he noted. If he hadn’t been working around the mine, the entire colony would have perished, he said.Congdon received a letter of thanks from the Colorado Division of Wildlife for assisting their research on the bat colony. He has also worked with college professors from Colorado on research.Despite believing his actions and intentions benefited the mine and the bats, Congdon gave up fighting the charges. He said he couldn’t afford the fight, especially since the charges are what he termed minor infractions.”For me, it was really a dollars and cents decision not to go to court and fight a petty offense,” he said. Congdon believes his case is a microcosm of what’s happening around the West as traditional activities like mining, logging and grazing get pushed off public lands in favor of recreational pursuits. “This is the transition period,” he said.The federal government has the power to squash “the working man” but won’t mess with big corporations with lawyers at their disposal, in Congdon’s view.He is scheduled for sentencing Jan. 29. Congdon said his attorney told him not to expect jail time or probation but that a fine was possible. Congdon may also be required to rebuild the mine’s access road to a better standard.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.