Powerful green group joins mining-claim ownership fray
A powerful environmental group and its legal muscle have joined the battle over ownership of 51 patented mining claims scattered in the mountains around Aspen.
Aspen Wilderness Workshop, through Public Counsel of the Rockies, claims the ownership dispute has huge environmental implications. At least half of the mining claims are located in the three wilderness areas surrounding Aspen, according to Karin Gustafson, project director for Public Counsel, a public-interest law firm.
Fifty-one lawsuits have been filed by current and former Aspenites claiming they own the mining claims. The lawsuits seek to remove ownership claims by the federal government.
The U.S. Forest Service ended up with those 51 mining claims, and more than 100 others, in a 1994 land swap with Pitkin County. Pitkin and Eagle counties teamed to exchange land to acquire the Mount Sopris Tree Farm property in El Jebel from the feds.
The 51 lawsuits, all filed by Aspen attorney Gary Wright, contend Pitkin County never had title, therefore they couldn’t be exchanged. His clients contend they have better title to the mining claims.
At this point, Public Counsel is just lobbying the county governments to make sure they vigorously defend the lawsuits by helping the feds, Gustafson said. But the organization is prepared to offer legal assistance.
“My sense from the Forest Service is that help is welcomed,” said Gustafson.
At stake in some cases is the preservation of some of the most cherished backcountry areas around Aspen, Gustafson contended. Places like American Lake
and Cathedral Lake could end up with cabins near water’s edge or access roads in place of single-track hiking trails if the lawsuits are successful.
“Toward that end, we believe it is critical that the Counties provide substantial legal and financial support to the Forest Service to aggressively defend all claims that are determined to be without merit,” Gustafson wrote to the Pitkin and Eagle county commissioners. Her letter was delivered Thursday.
She went on to state that she suspects Wright’s strategy is to “overwhelm the Forest Service, in hopes of exacting a quick settlement on all of the plaintiffs’ behalf.” In an interview, Gustafson elaborated that illegitimate ownership allegations might be rewarded in the “overwhelming” scenario.
“The message must be sent that the Forest Service, as the stewards of our public lands, will not be held hostage by opportunistic individuals trying to get something for nothing,” Gustafson wrote.
Wright said Public Counsel might be making an effective emotional appeal, but not one with a legal basis. He said Gustafson is trying to “contaminate” the legal ownership of the mining claims with an argument about “the greater good of the community.”
Wright said he can sympathize with her sentiments. “It may not be a wonderful thing that the public doesn’t own these,” he said.
But just as it turned out that Stefan Albouy owned a marble quarry in the hallowed grounds of Conundrum Creek Valley, Wright claimed his clients own mining claims in the backcountry and wilderness around Aspen.
Gustafson is ignoring the legal facts in her emotional approach to the issues, Wright alleged.
“There are 45 of these [cases] where Pitkin County never owned anything – ever,” he said.
The basis of those cases is this: Owners of the mining claims abandoned them after the 1893 silver crash. Pitkin County thought it acquired them for non-payment of taxes in the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s. In the 1940s and ’50s, the county issued itself treasurer’s deeds to the properties.
Wright claimed the treasurer’s deeds are “void on their face” because of flawed tax sale procedures, often missing a specified date; and sometimes by not making a legitimate attempt to find the last known owners.
Wright claimed his clients can establish better title. Gustafson claimed many of those claims are suspect, at best.
Eagle County Manager Jack Ingstad said it is premature to assume lands were traded that shouldn’t have been.
Pitkin County Manager Hillary Smith said title research is being performed, but she is also confident the county officials in office in 1994 had solid reasons to believe they were trading land the county owned.
She said Public Counsel can rest assured that Pitkin County is determined to vigorously defend the cases.
“We want to work cooperatively with the Forest Service and Eagle County to make sure we’re successful in this issue,” Smith said.
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