Biden sets in motion major process to protect Red Lady

Looking at 20-year administrative mineral withdrawal

[  By Mark Reaman  ]

It took the signature of U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday, October 12 but Crested Butte’s Red Lady mountain was provided some major protection and breathing room as the Biden administration began the process of considering and potentially implementing a 20-year administrative mineral withdrawal on public lands that include those on Mt. Emmons.

The direction came as part of the ceremony making Camp Hale near Vail a new National Monument, but Biden also included protections for the Thompson Divide area that extend over to Mt. Emmons. While not the end of the struggle to permanently protect Mt. Emmons, it is another significant action in what feels like the fourth quarter of the game that has lasted more than 45 years. Local representatives from Gunnison County, the Town of Crested Butte and High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) all attended the ceremony and praised the move.

“The closing off of the area surrounding Mt. Emmons to mining is a monumental step forward that our community and High Country Conservation Advocates have been working toward for decades,” said HCCA’s Red Lady program director Julie Nania, who was at the signing ceremony on Wednesday. “Withdrawing the Thompson Divide and Mt. Emmons areas from mining will help preserve our ranching economy in the North Fork and accomplishes a critical step in the effort to keep Mt. Emmons mine-free.” 

Two-year public process leading to potential 20-year withdrawal

As for the process that is now set in motion, the Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service submitted a joint withdrawal petition and application to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Secretary Haaland’s approval of the petition and publication of a notice in the Federal Register will initiate a two-year segregation that will prohibit new mining claims and the issuance of new federal mineral leases on approximately 224,794 acres in the Thompson Divide area. During this time, the Forest Service and the BLM will seek public comment and conduct a science-based environmental analysis.

The two-year segregation of lands initiated by this proposal prohibits the location of new mining claims or the issuance of new mineral leasing within portions of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests (GMUG), White River National Forest, and BLM public lands. The action does not affect water rights, activities on private lands or valid existing rights.

Publication of the Federal Register notice will also initiate a 90-day public comment period on the proposed withdrawal. Additionally, the agencies will begin preparing an environmental analysis to inform whether the lands should be withdrawn for a period of up to 20 years.

While not permanent like a legislative withdrawal would be if ultimately approved by Congress, Biden’s action extends long sought-after protections for Red Lady. The hope by those involved in the fight to eliminate any possibility of mining in that area is that an administrative withdrawal would provide the time to obtain a permanent solution to the mining threat that has hovered for decades over the mountain that overlooks Crested Butte.

The legislative mineral withdrawal was included as part of senator Michael Bennett’s CORE Act proposal that was stalled in Congress earlier this year. It was also supported by senator John Hickenlooper but opposed by congresswoman Lauren Boebert. 

Local officials thrilled with movement

Gunnison County commissioner Jonathan Houck has been part of the Red Lady process for years and was honored to be invited to the Wednesday ceremony. “Beginning the process of a 20-year administrative withdrawal of the Thompson Divide area is a huge leap in the direction that citizens of Gunnison County have desired for decades,” he said. “A good swath of the Thompson Divide area is in Northern Gunnison County and this action includes the mining claims associated with Mt. Emmons. For all 10 years I have served as a commissioner, these public lands designations and conservation efforts have been front and center and the CORE Act has been the mechanism to move four individual public lands bills forward. While we celebrate the much deserved Camp Hale designation and the movement on the Thompson Divide Withdrawal and Protection Act, we will continue to be relentless in our pursuit of making those mineral withdrawals permanent and to have the Curecanti National Recreation Area Boundary Act passed in its entirety.”

Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick was also at the signing ceremony and said the move is indeed a major step. “The quest to see the Red Lady protected is a deep part of the identity of the Town of Crested Butte. We’re excited to see the importance of this issue to our community recognized nationally through the President’s recent action,” he said. “This is an important, but not final, step. We now look forward to seeing the land exchange between the Mount Emmons Mining Company (MEMC) and the USFS completed.”

That land exchange is part of the continuing effort to fully prohibit mining and development on Mt. Emmons while protecting water and local recreation opportunities. The land exchange is in the works between the MEMC and the U.S. Forest Service. Basically, it would give MEMC approximately 450 acres of land on Mt. Emmons from the Forest Service where the water treatment plant that manages water from Coal Creek is located. That water ultimately supplies the town of Crested Butte’s water. The idea is that with MEMC owning the land, it can upgrade the treatment plant more quickly and efficiently than if it had to go through a federal review process. The USFS would get the Three Peaks Ranch up Ohio Creek on Carbon Mountain. As part of the exchange, a Conservation Easement (CE) to be held by the Crested Butte Land Trust and a mining extinguishment agreement addressing mining and future development on the property would be implemented. Skiers would have permission to climb to the top of Red Lady Bowl. Public comment on the proposed land exchange is being taken by the Forest Service until October 17.  

But for now, local officials are celebrating the Biden move. “We’ve been waiting to celebrate a withdrawal like this for decades and would like to thank our Colorado representatives and President Biden for putting this into action,” concluded Nania. “This effort will protect our clean air and water while we continue to pursue the long-term protections included in the CORE Act.”

“This countywide community has a long track record of not giving up or relenting when it comes to things they are passionate about. For decades, eliminating the threat of mining on Mt. Emmons has galvanized the Crested Butte community, and in turn spread to the whole valley,” summarized Houck. “We should never forget how many hands have carried that torch and know that today’s significant milestone is built on the hard work of so many. Public Lands are the life blood of Gunnison County, and I am so proud of the citizens enduring dedication to stewardship and thoughtful conservation. We earned these protections together as a community, as a valley, as a county made up of friends and neighbors who know that endurance and grit still mean something when it comes to getting things done.”

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