Watchdogging for four decades
by Dawne Belloise
Forty years ago, a small group of concerned locals met at the home of Dick Wingerson. There, Don Bachman, Ceil Murray, Wes Light, Susan Cottingham, Roy Smith and Chuck Malick got together to plot how to stop AMAX, a mining company, from destroying Mt. Emmons, known and loved locally as the Red Lady, and consequently, also save the then-sleepy town of Crested Butte from a massive molybdenum mine.
From that early gathering, the High Country Citizen’s Alliance (HCCA; now the High Country Conservation Advocates) was born.
Since then, HCCA has successfully led the community in keeping our Red Lady mine-free and is now working with the local partners such as the town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County, the current owner of the mine properties, and state and federal agencies to take advantage of an opportunity to secure permanent protection for Mt. Emmons.
To celebrate 40 years of HCCA’s accomplishments, the organization is planning a celebratory evening on the lawn of the historic Depot on the east end of Elk Avenue, July 30, from 5 to 9 p.m. with a Crested Butte tradition, a potluck dinner, as well as live music by Bill Dowell, a slideshow, an environment-inspired art silent auction, free beer and wine, and a much-anticipated keynote presentation by W Mitchell, the former mayor of Crested Butte who led the initial fight against the mine (see W Mitchell’s profile in this issue).
Then-mayor W Mitchell got involved and almost the entire community got on board with the movement, although not all of the locals felt mining was evil since there were still old-timer families who remembered the mining days here and some thought that a return to the industry would be beneficial to town’s economy. But this newly proposed mine would be different from the coal extraction, which was essential to Crested Butte’s founding and development from the 1880s. The new mine would be a large industrial one, impacting many of the pristine valleys like the Slate River, Ohio Creek, and over Kebler Road, demanding huge electrical and wastewater needs.
Through HCCA’s efforts, along with numerous and varying situations as well as community resistance and legal battles, five different mining companies that tried to move forward were thwarted from doing so.
HCCA has assisted and helped create many environmental accomplishments through the years that have been beneficial to the valley’s quality of life and outstanding beauty:
—joining with local ranchers to avoid clear cutting of aspen trees on Kebler;
—stopping trans-mountain water diversion;
—working on nationally recognized range reform with local ranchers;
—creating local wilderness areas like the Oh Be Joyful addition and Fossil Ridge;
—pushing the designation of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison as a national park;
—getting the national roadless rule adopted;
—helping the county write coal bed methane regulations;
—working with CBMR to get a 44-acre conservation easement in Mt. Crested Butte; and
—getting the vote on a ballot issue, which passed by a nine to one margin, to allow the town to spend $2 million from the real estate transfer tax to buy the mining and mill site claims from the current owners, Mt. Emmons Mining Company/Freeport-McMoran, who are working with everyone to find a permanent solution so there will be no mining or threat of it on the Red Lady ever.
In 2014, HCCA changed its name to High Country Conservation Advocates to better reflect its mission, which is, essentially, protecting public lands and water.
From the start, HCCA decided to be more than just a single-issue organization. When timber sales and trans-mountain water diversion reared their heads, HCCA dealt with those issues as well as helping keep public lands from being privatized, and protecting the health and natural beauty of the land, rivers, and wildlife in and around Gunnison County, now and for future generations.
There’ll be free beer (and wine) at the birthday party anniversary, thanks to the former Crested Butte Brewery, which developed the original Red Lady Ale and shared that recipe with the Irwin Brewing Company, which is brewing it to honor 40 years of HCCA keeping Red Lady mine-free. The Red Lady Ale is an American amber/red ale. An Irwin Brewing Company pilsner, red and white wine, and non-alcoholic beverages will also be served, all free, but as usual, tips will be greatly appreciated for the volunteers.