“A lighthouse in the Rockies”
If residents went to hear former mine opponent W. Mitchell’s speech on Tuesday night searching for answers on how to save Mt. Emmons from mining interests, they came away with an answer. It was something like, “Look to yourselves.”
“You have so much impressive leadership in this town,” Mitchell said, noting that the community is well equipped to resist mining plans, compared to the fight in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “We didn’t nearly have the ammunition that you do now.”
A two-term mayor of Crested Butte, Mitchell gained fame both in Gunnison County and the United States for his role in leading the community’s anti-mine campaign from 1977 to 1981. The culmination came with AMAX Corp.’s withdrawal of its plans to establish a molybdenum mine on the flanks of Mt. Emmons. Mitchell went on to run for Congress, became a radio and public television personality, and co-founded the $65 million Vermont Castings, Inc. He now works as a motivational speaker around the world.
He brought some of that magic to the Crested Butte Community School on Tuesday night, as he urged residents to protect Crested Butte and the areas around it as a national treasure. “We’re the custodians of something enormously valuable in this country,” Mitchell said. “We have the role of stewards.”
Mitchell began his talk by explaining that he now spends his time talking with groups around the globe. He said he was thankful to be back in Crested Butte, where he made his home for 13 years, and noted that some things about the local attempts to keep a molybdenum mine off of Mt. Emmons had not changed.
He argued that although Wyoming-based U.S. Energy has mining claims on Mt. Emmons, that claim is not a right. While the Mining Law of 1872 made sense more than 100 years ago, he said, “It does not make as much sense in 2008 when people are staking claims on chunks of land out of this community and taking the wealth out of the ground that belongs to all of us and keeping it for themselves. It’s not fair and it’s not right.” He urged residents to tell Senator Ken Salazar and Congressman John Salazar the same thing.
Mitchell also spoke about his decision to run for mayor in Crested Butte—a move that he says he wasn’t anticipating. However, he changed his mind after speaking with the person who was running for mayor about AMAX’s plans to build a molybdenum mine in Crested Butte. “I asked him, ‘What are we going to do about it?’” Mitchell recalled. “He made the statement, ‘There’s nothing we can do. They’re big and we’re small. They’re powerful and we’re weak.’ They had forceful allies in the state and federal capitals and we didn’t.”
At that point, Mitchell came up with his trademark slogan: ”Oh yes, we can.” He says he hadn’t discussed it with anyone but he knew that “At least we can try.”
The decision marked the beginning of a long battle, or rather “a wonderful adventure,” as Mitchell remembers it. He’s still proud of the work that this community did to halt mine plans. “I think of Crested Butte as a lighthouse in the Rockies,” he said. “We’re a town that did stand up for itself. We said there are values here that are worth more than a pound of molybdenum… Moly is in a lot of places but there are very few Crested Buttes in the world.”
Many of the questions from the audience centered on how to inspire more segments of the Crested Butte community to participate in the fight. Crested Butte resident and current Red Lady Lisa King asked Mitchell how he inspired people to join in the fight, noting that she’s witnessed passivity when it comes to the current challenge.
Mitchell said people who don’t show up to meetings aren’t bad people; they just haven’t been motivated to get involved yet. Recalling a program called “Community at a Crossroads” that encouraged kitchen table conversations between diverse groups of people, he urged Crested Butte residents to find out what’s important to their neighbors and talk to them about it.
Crested Butte resident David Charnack asked Mitchell’s opinion on peaceful protests and other actions that might attract the attention of the state and national media.
Mitchell noted that the act of attending a meeting was a demonstration in itself and urged people to contact their representatives. “Public officials are very sensitive to hearing from their constituents,” he said. “They do listen.” Mitchell also admitted that he was a draw to the media and that was something that could be emulated today. “I was quite a show… It was great street theater and the media loved it,” he said.
Crested Butte resident Jeremy Robinson asked Mitchell how he might inspire younger people to join in the fight over Mt. Emmons.
“That’s the $64 question… How do you inspire people, how do you get people involved?” he asked. It comes down to getting them to understand that they’re stewards of this place, he said, and having activities that might appeal to them, like a concert. Once again, Mitchell urged residents to come up with ideas together. “Look at all the minds in this room,” he said.
Crested Butte resident Eric Ross asked Mitchell if he might be willing to step into the fray again as a public spokesperson. Mitchell responded that he’d be willing to discuss the former fight but the talent and energy for the current effort is already in place.
Mitchell ended his talk with the hope that people could draw on some element of his talk—a key—in the future and thanked them for “showing up.”