It sure looks like we’re in the last round….

We are soooooo close. Sometimes a fight is fast and ends with a quick knockout punch. Not so the community fight over mining on Red Lady. The half century fight to protect the mountain overlooking Crested Butte from major mining operations being pushed by outside forces has been going on for decades. It feels like this heavyweight fight is approaching the end of the 15th round and through a combination of persistence, smarts, resilience and some exhaustion, the fight is close to ending with a technical knockout that appears to be definitive.

The stars are lined up on this one. The federal government, through Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, signed an administrative mineral withdrawal that will take away mining options on most of Mt. Emmons for the next 20 years. The idea is to use that time to push Congress for a permanent mineral withdrawal. This past week the GMUG Forest Service supervisor in Delta signed a “decision memo” agreeing to a complex land exchange involving more than 1,000 acres in the region that also prevents the mining company that holds land and mining rights on Red Lady from developing either in ways other than reclaiming the impacts of past mining. It appears the papers are set to be officially signed in September. It was described to me using a football analogy—we are at the point where it’s like the end of the football game where the winning team takes a knee on the last few plays to run out the clock and make it official. 

As a community that has embraced the Red Lady fight as a part of its modern legend, the recent developments are welcome and part of Crested Butte’s evolution. Of course, until the papers are signed this fall, no one involved in the decades-long fight will probably sleep easily every night, but it sure looks as if the end is near. Fighting a direction based on extracting minerals from nature now seems an easy part of the place, even though most of us living here use those minerals in our everyday lives. 

The current Crested Butte and the North Valley overall came about in large part thanks to a foundation in mining …silver at first followed by coal. Molybdenum, the mineral lying beneath Red Lady, is used to harden steel so it is found in cars, bikes and wind turbines. Evidence of the valley’s mining heritage exists all over the area and it is a heritage those living here appreciate but have no desire to return to. But in the not-so-distant past, mining on Mt. Emmons was a very real possibility. The high-grade molybdenum ore deposit was discovered in Red Lady some 50 years ago and that attracted several people and companies interested in extracting the metal. That extraction would have immeasurably changed the look and feel of the place. The fight ensued.

In the 1970s, old-timers living here that came from a mining lineage naturally saw economic opportunity in a new mine. Their neighbors, laid back hippies who liked the quiet valley, saw destruction of a sacred place. The hippies eventually won that internal battle and now the external battle is officially winding down in victory. 

Part of the hippie argument was that the community had made a deliberate choice to be a tourist community rather than a mining town and the two could not coexist easily if at all. Fair. Lord knows we’re in the middle of the results of that choice now. And because fighting has been so much a part of our modern story, the raw conversations of how much a busy tourist season extracts from the community is a regular topic that bubbles up during these on-season periods. 

While I once wondered if the community was making the right decision pushing for tourism over blue-collar mining, it seems as we wrap this up that we have. While July can certainly be overwhelming, I prefer that to a 24-hour operating mine that would chip away at Red Lady. Yeah, tourism comes with its own extractive price as more and more people pound the backcountry and crowd a once sleepy town. But I for one like the energy of people who want to experience the outdoors, enjoy the local art and appreciate the opportunities available in a high mountain valley. 

There was no shortage of locals or tourists enjoying hometown band Easy Jim at Monday’s Alpenglow. What seemed like 10,000+ people lined Elk Avenue on the Fourth of July. There is plenty of music and outdoor amenity opportunities right now. There is excitement as a couple of new restaurants, Kyleena and Jeff’s Two Twelve and Mark Walter’s BruHaus, are set to open in the middle of this month — Two Twelve on Monday the 15th and the BruHaus on Monday the 22nd. The frenzy of the Fourth seems to have passed and a consistent flow of tourists will be here until schools start up in Texas and Oklahoma. Ahhhhh…shoulder seasons are coming!

Now, not everyone who comes here embraces the values of the place and that is part of the extractive nature of tourism as dealing with that eats away at our collective soul. And honestly, most of the time those people who don’t like what this place is or who want to change it to whatever they left, don’t return. 

I also think that given the sometimes bare-knuckled tenor of the Red Lady fight, the community has tried to be deliberate in its choice of direction. We don’t consciously over-market the valley and we try to respect the people who take the chance to move here and share the specialness of this unique place. Our choices have not always been simply about growth and looking for more, more, more but even with deliberate direction challenges arise constantly. Housing workers, being able to afford to go to those new restaurants, having to deal with actual traffic clusters in July all are negative consequences of our choices but show me a place that doesn’t have any issues. There are consequences of any decision. 

As we wait for the Red Lady land exchange papers to be signed in a few months, we can take heart in most of the choices that have been made to lead us to this point. The bottom line is that we are entering the ring for the 15th round and we can almost hear the final bell. Let’s keep our eye on the prize for the end of the fight and celebrate what certainly looks like a victory…while accepting where we have chosen to go as a community.

—Mark Reaman

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