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Paul Andersen: Fair Game

Paul Andersen
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

The scuttlebutt around Crested Butte is that the hit movie “Avatar” is based on a real-life event that took place there 30 years ago. Word has it that director James Cameron, who has ties with the Butte, based his story on the town’s pitched environmental battle against a mining company.

The parallels are almost too uncanny to dismiss. In 1977, the town was besieged by an international mining conglomerate that set its sights on Mount Emmons, a cherished mountain just a few miles west of town. The high, sweeping basin at the top of the mountain is known as Red Lady Bowl.

The mayor of Crested Butte at the time, a man who went simply by “Mitchell,” was a paraplegic confined to a wheelchair. Mitchell took on the battle against the mine and worked tirelessly to rally Crested Butteicians to stop the invader.

The nuances of the real story are many and complex. I was reporting for the Crested Butte Chronicle then, and I saw first hand how a small town can stand up heroically to big industry in a kind of David-and-Goliath faceoff.

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The mining company, AMAX, set its sights on a vast ore body of molybdenum, a metal used in steel alloys. The proposed industrial mining operation would have forever altered Crested Butte and its small-town ambiance, while raping the “Red Lady.”

To make a long story very short, the town thwarted AMAX at every step of the way and achieved a victory of sorts by stalling AMAX until the metals market crashed. The town also raised the ante for the mine by requiring the Forest Service to impose expensive environmental and social mitigation that the depressed metals market could not underwrite.

During a visit to Crested Butte last weekend, I was relieved that the town still feels a little like Pandora. If many of the locals were painted blue, they would look like the Na’vi people of “Avatar.” A youthful athleticism makes Crested Butte a template for Pandora.

Then there is the land itself, sublime and awe-inspiring. I skied up the Slate River, starting right from town, and the looming, snow-covered peaks of Paradise Divide are still locked in my memory. The town is, unfortunately, snowmobile-crazed, but if you can overlook whining machines and the stench of exhaust, nature is predominant.

Sadly, there is trouble in paradise. Hundreds of millions of tons of low-grade molybdenum ore are still in the heart of Mount Emmons. Since AMAX pulled out, three different mining proposals have been made. The current proposal has traction, and not only with the mining company.

Crested Butte today is Pandora in the midst of a revolution. I spoke with one bar owner who said he would support a mine now that the recession has crimped the town’s economy. He also supports ski area expansion on controversial Snodgrass Mountain.

A powerful segment of Crested Butte is committed to resisting both moly mine and ski area development, which are seen as assaults to ecological integrity and community values. Snodgrass has divided the town with bitterness and acrimony because others are calling for development to stave off what they characterize as financial ruin.

If there’s a sequel to “Avatar,” it will describe a division between the Na’vi people, some of whom want their homeland developed for profit, while others want it preserved for future generations and the rights of nature. If there is a middle ground, Crested Butte has yet to settle on it. Meanwhile, there is a discordant vibe there suggestive of the battle lines drawn in “Avatar.”

Fighting AMAX in the ’70s was a contest of values, where the town’s higher spiritual ideals stood above the material gains and utilitarian benefits of industrial mining. Crested Butte defended its autonomy then, while today hostilities have torn the town’s social fabric in two.

If only James Cameron could produce some special effects magic that would reunify Crested Butte and purify paradise. Now that would be a happy ending.


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