Federal plans to protect Red Lady from mining forge ahead

Draft environmental assessment finds ‘No significant impact’

By Katherine Nettles

A draft environmental assessment finding among federal agencies of “no significant impact” for the proposed Thompson Divide Withdrawal could mean some very significant impacts to the environmental conservation of a large swath of land in Gunnison County, including Mt. Emmons. 

Last Friday, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), in coordination with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), released a draft environmental assessment (EA) for the requested Thompson Divide Withdrawal in Gunnison, Garfield and Pitkin counties. The document’s release marked the beginning of a 30-day public comment period which will end on January 8, 2024.

 The Thompson Divide Withdrawal proposes to withdraw 224,713 acres of National Forest System and BLM-managed lands within the area west of Crested Butte extending to the south of Glenwood Springs from potential new mining claims for 20 years.

The Thompson Divide includes forests within the Gunnison Ranger District, Paonia Ranger District, West Zone/Aspen Ranger District and West Zone/Sopris Ranger District. This also includes Mt. Emmons, known locally as Red Lady, whose protection from mining has been sought for almost 50 years by local government and grassroots organizations in the Gunnison Valley. While the withdrawal would be limited to a period of 20 years, parallel efforts may ensure that Red Lady achieves permanent protection through a land conservation easement and land exchange between the USFS, town of Crested Butte and Mt. Emmons Mining Company. That deal is expected to reach fruition in 2024 as well. 

“The prioritization of this withdrawal by the Forest Service is a monumental step forward for the Gunnison Valley, which has been seeking to protect our headwaters from a large-scale molybdenum mine for 46 years,” said Julie Nania, water program director for High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA). “The withdrawal lands encompass a large portion of the headwaters of the Gunnison River, one of the largest tributaries to the Colorado River basin. They also include the area surrounding Mt. Emmons where our community has long-opposed the development of a molybdenum mine within Crested Butte’s drinking water supply.

“The administrative withdrawal is a significant step toward protecting our water resources in the Gunnison River basin and beyond,” concluded Nania.

“The proposed withdrawal encompasses the area surrounding Red Lady – also known as Mt. Emmons – a mountain dear to the heart of our community,” stated Sue Navy, board president and a founding member of HCCA.

Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick responded to the draft EA with a positive outlook as well.

“As mayor I am excited to see one more step taken towards withdrawing Mt. Emmons from mining. It is great to see the government making progress on this community priority. But we will need to stay diligent to ensure the USFS honors the commitments made by the president as we move towards permanent protections. Special kudos to senator Michael Bennet and his staff for staying on top of this issue!”

County Commisioner chair Jonathan Houck also expressed his appreciation. “As we work our way through the draft EA released last week, Gunnison County is initially pleased and supportive of the Forest Service’s and BLM’s findings. From the Thompson Divide down to Mt. Emmons we have continued to work with our partners including the Town of Crested Butte, HCCA and the unwavering support of individuals, businesses and organizations across Gunnison County to protect the ecological, agricultural, sporting and recreational values of these productive lands. We look forward to seeing the administrative withdrawal across the finish line and continue working toward the ultimate goal of permanent withdrawal.” 

The Thompson Divide Mineral Withdrawal draft EA describes that the 20-year block for mineral extraction is called for based on widespread conservation values, “to prevent sale or exchange of USFS and BLM administered lands in the withdrawal application area and protect these lands, and the natural resources therein, from the potential adverse effects that may arise from mineral exploration and development. The requested withdrawal would retain the contiguous landscape, resulting in more efficient and effective administration of USFS and BLM administered lands and to protect the agricultural, ranching, wildlife, air quality, recreation, ecological, and scenic values of the Thompson Divide Area for both intrinsic and economic value to local communities,” states the draft, which finds no significant impacts will occur based on the action.

On Oct. 12, 2022, the Biden-Harris administration first announced steps to conserve the Thompson Divide area. The withdrawal responds to “broad concerns about its important wildlife habitat, recreation opportunities, grazing lands, and clean air and water,” according to a joint press release issued Friday by the USFS, Department of the Interior and BLM.

Preserving recreation, scenery and culture

The draft EA describes that “Other notable recreation destinations include Lake Irwin Campground and Lost Lake Campground. Both are popular camping spots in the withdrawal application area due to hiking and fishing opportunities and stunning views of the Ruby Mountain Range. The Oh Be Joyful Recreation Area encompasses 600 acres and provides hiking, picnicking, and camping opportunities in the Slate River valley. Many people come to Oh Be Joyful to view waterfalls on Oh Be Joyful Creek, which is a short hike west of the campground.”

The draft describes some of the significant  scenic attributes of the withdrawal application area between McClure Pass and Crested Butte with rolling landforms of rounded ridges and valleys transitioning to steep, high angle mountain side slopes and alpine ridges. 

“This area also includes the high alpine peaks and ridges of East Beckwith Mountain and West Beckwith Peak on the northern edge of the West Elk Wilderness and Ruby Peak and Mount Owen on the southern edge of the Raggeds Wilderness. The Ruby Range area, most often viewed from Kebler Pass Road, is covered with a highly mineralized rock formation characterized by varying shades of red. 

“Ruby Range is especially breathtaking when contrasted with golden aspen in the fall. Ruby Peak and Mount Owen provide a beautiful backdrop to Lake Irwin, a popular fishing and camping destination. This rugged area is important for its outstanding and diverse scenery, backcountry recreation opportunities, and remoteness as well as wildlife viewing opportunities. Recreation opportunities exist in all seasons,” according to the USFS in the original document.

The draft describes the area’s cultural importance as well. “[It is] one of the last strongholds of traditional ranching culture in western Colorado and provides summer range to some of the oldest ranching operations in the area. Livestock operations rely on federal grazing allotments, or designated areas that have an assigned livestock carrying capacity, in the Thompson Divide area, preserving thousands of acres of increasingly scarce winter range on private valley bottom lands for deer and elk as well.” Permitted grazing occurs on 36 active grazing allotments of the Thompson Divide withdrawal application area.

Comment period and virtual public meeting

The 30-day public comment period will be open through January 8, 2024. 

“This comment period offers the public an important opportunity to participate in the evaluation of this requested withdrawal,” said Rocky Mountain regional forester Frank Beum. “This requested withdrawal of the Thompson Divide area is in response to a strong interest from a diverse stakeholder group, including hunters, ranchers, conservation groups, and local governments.”

The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management will host a virtual public meeting from 6-7 p.m. MST on December 18. The meeting will include a short presentation explaining the requested withdrawal and draft environmental assessment, a question-and-answer session and information on how to submit public comments.

Register for the virtual public meeting at https://bit.ly/4878ZFV. For inquiries about accessibility, please contact Olivia Blake at 970-200-6195 or olivia.blake@usda.gov. 

More information about the requested withdrawal and how to submit comments is available at https://www.fs.usda.gov/project/?project=63679.  

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