Recent mineral withdrawal a big step… but the bow is not yet on the package

Mt. Emmons Land Exchange will bring the protections for Red Lady this community has been seeking for almost 50 years 

By Jon Hare, HCCA

Earlier in April, Gunnison Country celebrated when the US Department of Interior signed the historic Mt. Emmons–Thompson Divide Mineral Withdrawal to remove the opportunity for new mining or oil and gas operations on over 220,000 acres of federal land in Western Colorado managed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). 

This is definitely a great reason for all of us who love public lands to celebrate, yet at High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) we are focused on the next project in the Gunnison basin that is several years in formulation and moving toward completion in 2024. Right now, at our doorstep, the Mt. Emmons Land Exchange is the best chance this community has ever had to save the mountain known as Red Lady and the best opportunity to protect Gunnison Country from the impacts of a large-scale industrial mining operation.

Mt. Emmons, affectionately known as Red Lady, is the mountain just three miles west of Crested Butte, which contains a large deposit of molybdenum ore. Molybdenum is a steel hardening agent which is an essential ingredient to make metals thinner and lighter. HCCA formed in 1977 to protect Red Lady and our community from the impacts of large-scale industrial mining. 

So, what does this Mineral Withdrawal (MW) mean for public lands in Gunnison Country? Of the over 220,000 acres of federal lands included in the withdrawn area, approximately 100,000 of those acres are in Gunnison County. The MW area enters Gunnison County on the north at McClure Pass and drops south along the western boundary of the Ragged Mountains Wilderness Area to the Beckwith mountains. From the Beckwiths, the MW area runs east across Kebler Pass encompassing Irwin, Scarp Ridge, Oh Be Joyful and south via Splain’s Gulch into Carbon Creek and the northeast corner of the Ohio Creek valley. 

The withdrawal edges up to Red Lady but doesn’t actually encompass the bulk of Mt. Emmons as the lands covering the ore body are private lands owned by the Mt. Emmons Mining Company (MEMC). 

On the map the withdrawal area stands out as a corridor of wildlife habitat that connects the Gunnison zone to Paonia and north to Aspen and Glenwood Springs. As wildlife habitat continues to be fragmented in almost every direction, it’s a sliver of hope that a herd of elk, bear or lynx will keep moving through the three different zones.

According to the official Public Land Order for the Mineral Withdrawal, its purpose is to ensure the retention of the contiguous landscape, resulting in more efficient and effective administration of National Forest System and BLM-administered lands, and to protect the agricultural, ranching, wildlife, air quality, recreation, ecological and scenic values of the Thompson Divide Area from further mineral development that could adversely impact these values and the local economies that depend on these values. 

The Mt. Emmons–Thompson Divide Mineral Withdrawal area is an important layer of protection for public lands in Gunnison County for the next 20 years and formalizes the lean toward agriculture, ranching, wildlife, air quality, recreation, ecological and scenic values for public lands decisions in Western Colorado. 

The Mt. Emmons Land Exchange between MEMC and the USFS is the next real opportunity for this community to save Red Lady and avoid the impacts of a large-scale industrial molybdenum mine in the upper Gunnison River Valley. 

Those industrial mining impacts go far beyond Red Lady and Mt. Emmons to include reservoirs, ditches, settling ponds, powerlines, conveyor belts, significant truck hauling, tailings piles, emissions and an influx of people to our valley which would instantly change the nature of this place and have negative impacts on the reason why most of us are here—the natural environment and vast acres of unspoiled public lands. Most importantly, a molybdenum mine on Mt. Emmons would crush the water source for the Town of Crested Butte, limiting water supplies in an area where water supply is already a big concern. 

After collaborating with the Town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County and HCCA, the land exchange was proposed by MEMC to the USFS in 2021 with the goal of trading mine-impacted National Forest land on Mt. Emmons in exchange for four rural ranch properties in Gunnison and Saguache Counties. 

Ownership of the land with the mining infrastructure and impacts on Mt. Emmons will give MEMC the ability to operate, repair and replace the water treatment plant, as well as reclaim areas without having to work through the USFS. Their activities will still be permitted by the State of Colorado for water quality controls with additional oversight by the Town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County. In exchange, the American people obtain properties that are surrounded by national forest and have genuine appeal (wetlands, trails, wildlife habitat, etc.) to be included and managed as national forest moving forward.  

Second, the pending Land Exchange includes Conservation Easements through the Crested Butte Land Trust (CBLT) which will prohibit any industrial or residential development on the private land on Mt. Emmons, while simultaneously providing legal public recreational access to traditional ski and hiking routes that cross the mine-owned private lands. This is perhaps the most significant layer of protection for Red Lady and finally provides a path for legal recreational access to the summit of the mountain. 

The third part of the Mt. Emmons Land Exchange is that MEMC will sign a mineral extinguishment with CBLT for the permanent relinquishment and extinguishment of mineral rights on their private land on Mt. Emmons, as well as, separately, relinquish over 1200 unpatented mining claims on federal lands in Gunnison County. 

It can’t be stressed enough, especially considering the time and funds invested into the project by MEMC, the USFS and BLM, U.S. Senator Michael Bennet, Gunnison County, the Town of Crested Butte, CBLT, HCCA and on down the line—there are many people who have worked to queue up this project, and ensure it has fully considered the practical details of its implications on the ground and deliver to this community an end result that provides confidence in a mine-free future while deeply tapping into the collaborative spirit of our community and the value of our public lands. 

The forest supervisor for the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre, and Gunnison National Forest (GMUG NF) has the authority and should sign the decision memo to authorize the Mt. Emmons Land Exchange as soon as possible. Once the GMUG forest supervisor signs the Land Exchange Decision, a cascade of work is in place to adjust the boundaries and execute the conservation easements and mineral extinguishments with CBLT. 

Once the ink is dried, this community will finally see the end to the threat of a large-scale industrial mine on Red Lady. 

In Gunnison County, HCCA is advocating for other important layers of protections for public lands and Red Lady, like the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, but we must emphasize that right now the owner of the mine, MEMC, is committed to and significantly invested in the Mt. Emmons Land Exchange, which represents the best package of protections ever put together to Save Red Lady! 

Jon Hare is the advocacy director for High Country Conservation Advocates and a resident of Gunnison. 

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