Opposition to Avalanche Creek mine plan mounting

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Aspen Times fileA new operating plan for the Mystic Eagle Quarry in Avalanche Creek is under review by the U.S. Forest Service. The portal to the quarry is at the upper left.

ASPEN – Opposition to proposed year-round operation of a marble and alabaster mining operation in the Avalanche Creek area is mounting.

Both Pitkin County and the Colorado Division of Wildlife are drafting letters outlining objections to the proposed expansion of mining activity in an area where access is currently limited in the winter months to protect what wildlife officials say is a struggling bighorn sheep population.

County commissioners on Tuesday looked over a proposed draft of a county letter to the U.S. Forest Service, which is reviewing the application from the Mystic Eagle Mine.

“My opinion is we need to be tough as nails on this issue,” said Commissioner Jack Hatfield, voicing objections to proposed camping at the site for mine workers and other aspects of the application to the Forest Service.

In the past, the mine has not been permitted to operate from Nov. 15 to May 1. In its application, it seeks approval for year-round operation and the ability to work underground 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with above-ground limited to two shifts, Monday through Friday. Mine owners have also proposed five camping sites for employees.

The mine, formerly known as the White Banks Mine, is about 11.5 miles south of Carbondale and roughly 6 miles north of Redstone, along the road that leads to the Avalanche Creek campground. The road is closed to vehicles annually from Nov. 15 to May 1 to protect bighorn sheep. In addition, dogs aren’t permitted during those months and people are restricted to the road. The quarry portal is a short distance beyond the closure gate.

The mine had operated under a 28-year permit from Pitkin County, granted in 1998, but that permit did not allow winter operations, according to Lance Clarke, deputy director of the county’s Community Development Department. The mine’s former owner received approval in 2004 for a one-year trial period of winter operations, but never made use of it, Clarke told commissioners on Tuesday.

At that time, the county left the camping issue up to the Forest Service, he said. According to Clarke, Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson has said the Forest Service will consider the commuting distance from other available housing in the area in making a call on the request for camping.

Housing in Carbondale should be considered reasonable for the mine employees, suggested Commissioner Rachel Richards.

“I’m not at all excited about camping sites, 24/7, for winter operations,” she said.

The mine has operated under permits issued by both the county and the Forest Service. The latter permit expired last year, leading to the new application and proposed changes in the operation.

Like the county, the Division of Wildlife has drafted a letter on the proposal; the Forest Service is accepting comments through Friday.

The DOW is opposing wintertime operation, on-site camping and nighttime work within the mine, according to Clarke. The hillside above the mine is considered a winter concentration area for bighorn sheep and the DOW indicates the overall population is in “serious decline,” Clarke said.

Local DOW officers were not available for comment on Wednesday.

The county actually owns property, a mining claim called the Broker Lode, on the hillside above the Mystic Eagle Mine entrance. It was acquired as open space to help protect the habitat, according to Dale Will, open space and trails director.

“It was bought specifically to keep somebody from building a cabin up there, right in the middle of critical habitat,” he said.

The county also sterilized another developable parcel, farther up the valley, through a transferable development right. The county has eliminated the possibility of further development on inholdings within the national forest beyond the winter closure gate, Will said.

Commissioners said the county’s letter should press the Forest Service to address how the mining proposals would affect the county’s efforts to protect the area.

The Crystal Valley Caucus and Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association have also come out in opposition to the proposed year-round mining operation. Neighbors have expressed concerns in public meetings about environmental degradation and disruption of their peace and quiet.

The mine’s owners, headed by Walt Brown of Glenwood Springs, contend the mine holds valuable deposits of black and brown marble and that they need year-round work to make the mine business feasible. The operation will have little impact on neighbors, according to the mine’s owners.

The Forest Service will make the call on what can occur at the Mystic Eagle Mine. The agency is undertaking an environmental study of the mine’s effects. Aspen-Sopris District Ranger Scott Snelson will ultimately decide under what conditions the mine can operate. In large part, the agency is limited to regulating surface conditions at the mine, Snelson has said.