New lawsuit could settle decades-old battle over Crystal Valley mine
Mining company sues U.S. Forest Service over status of permit to mine marble
A long-festering battle over a marble mine in the Crystal River Valley has taken a twist that threatens to permanently shut down the operation before it ever gets scaled up to industrial level.
Mystic Eagle Quarry LLC contends it owns the White Banks mining claims along Avalanche Creek but the U.S. Forest Service has misinterpreted recent events and is taking action that could extinguish the company’s hard-fought mining permit. Mystic Eagle filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service in federal court Feb. 16 seeking a ruling that it holds a valid operations permit.
The Forest Service said it has simply relied on prior court rulings in a battle for the mining claims between Mystic Eagle and a rival company. It has ordered Mystic Eagle to remove its equipment from national forest lands at the mine site, about 5 miles north of Redstone along Avalanche Creek.
The fight between Mystic Eagle and rival Snowmass Mining Co. LLC between 2004 and 2020 had all the makings of an Old West mining saga — including allegations of claim jumping and backstabbing by a former business partner.
Former Roaring Fork Valley resident Robert Congdon has envisioned mining marble and alabaster from the mine since the early 1992, but contends that regulatory battles have prevented him from scaling up operations.
However, Mystic Eagle and Elbram Stone failed to file a yearly maintenance fee in 2004 and therefore forfeited their claims. A former business partner of Congdon’s created a new company, Snowmass Mining Co. LLC, which staked new claims in the area and also called them the White Banks claims.
Snowmass Mining filed a lawsuit against Mystic Eagle in 2014 to quiet title to the claims. A Pitkin County District Court judge awarded the claims to Snowmass Mining. However, the ruling didn’t determine the geographic boundaries of the two claims or where they overlap.
The acting Aspen Sopris District Ranger in fall 2019 sent a letter to Mystic Eagle saying that its equipment must be removed since it did not hold valid and senior rights to the mine. Mystic Eagle responded in November 2019 that it intended to appeal the acting ranger’s decision. The Forest Service countered that its letter wasn’t subject to appeal.
“It was the Colorado State Court, and not the Forest Service, that determined you do not own the subject mining claims that are located on National Forest System land, and that those claimed are owned by another party,” the acting ranger wrote. “Your use of NFS land within mining claims that are owned by another party are not operations authorized by the United States mining laws.”
Mystic Eagle contends its case grew stronger when Snowmass Mining failed to file its yearly maintenance fee by Sept. 1, 2020. Therefore, Mystic Eagle contends it once again possesses senior rights to the claims and should be allowed to undertake mining operations.
The Forest Service appointed Kevin Warner as the Aspen Sopris District Ranger in late 2019. Mystic Eagle asked him in 2020 to reconsider the agency’s position on the White Banks claims. Instead, Warner doubled down on the agency’s previously stated position.
“Without an approved plan of operations, which you do not have, you do not have authorization to conduct mining operations on National Forest Service Lands that are causing or are likely to cause significant disturbance of surface resources,” Warner wrote, according to the Mystic Eagle lawsuit. “The Forest Service has determined that your personal property located at the White Banks mine constitutes a significant disturbance of surface resources and therefore requires authorization by an approved plan of operations.”
Mystic Eagle contends that Forest Service personnel have made an incorrect assumption that the company and its affiliates don’t have an approved plan of operations. That violates due process because it does not give Mystic Eagle a chance “to be heard or to appeal,” the company’s lawsuit said.
In addition, the mining company contends that Forest Service personnel have provided false information about Mystic Eagle’s status to the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mine Safety. The state agency staff now believes Mystic Eagle has lost their legal right of entry to their mining claims, the lawsuit continued. The agency has scheduled a hearing before the Colorado Mine Lands and Reclamation Board to determine if the White Banks claims should be reclaimed.
Mystic Eagle said records kept by the Bureau of Land Management back its claims. The BLM oversees mining operations on Forest Service land. The BLM shows Mystic Eagle and its affiliates have “active” mining claims while Snowmass Mining’s claims are identified as “closed” due to lack of filing a maintenance fee last year.
A spokesman for the White River National Forest said the agency cannot comment on active litigation. No response has been filed yet by the U.S. Attorney’s Office on behalf of the Forest Service.
Mystic Eagle is asking a federal judge to issue a declaratory judgment that the Forest Service’s determination that the company no longer has a valid plan of operations was conducted without due process and that the decision that it has no right of legal entry is inaccurate. It wants a ruling that its operations plan is valid and in effect.
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Warm and dry conditions to start the winter have kept all but the higher elevation slopes free of snow. That is expected to change by the end of the week and the avalanche hazard could start to climb, according to Colorado Avalanche Information Center.