U.S. Forest Service signs off on Mt. Emmons Land Exchange

Hiking Red Lady to ski won’t be trespassing any more….

By Mark Reaman 

Another major step to protect Mt. Emmons, aka Red Lady, took place July 4 when Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison (GMUG) National Forests forest supervisor Chad Stewart signed an official “Decision Memo” approving a 1,000+ acre land exchange that will allow for quicker reclamation efforts on Mt. Emmons for past mining activity. Those reclamation efforts are being conducted by the Mt. Emmons Mining Company (MEMC), a subsidiary of global mining giant Freeport McMoRan which is responsible for the water treatment facility on Red Lady.

The 33-page memo explains the reasoning behind the complicated land exchange in which the Forest Service will acquire four non-federal parcels located in Gunnison and Saguache Counties totaling 625 acres in exchange for three federal parcels totaling 539 acres in Gunnison County that will be owned by MEMC. 

The newly acquired mining company property is located near the water treatment facility on Mt. Emmons just three miles west of Crested Butte and basically was transferred from the USFS to private ownership because it had lost National Forest character by having mine impacts and important water quality infrastructure on it. The ownership transfer will allow the company to proceed with reclamation measures without having to go through the lengthy federal review process. The reclamation will however continue to have oversight by the Colorado Water Quality Control Division, Gunnison County and the town of Crested Butte.

According to the decision memo, as part of the land exchange, a Conservation Easement and Mineral Extinguishment Agreement “will restrict the future use and management of the (newly acquired MEMC parcels) to remediation activities and limited public access, preserves and protects conservation values, and prevents future mining.” The Forest Service decision states that the Conservation Easement to be held by the Crested Butte Land Trust will “extinguish the right to subdivide and develop the property by MEMC in perpetuity.” 

Access for backcountry skiing and other non-motorized recreational opportunities will be provided by the Conservation Easement. The Mineral Extinguishment Agreement, to be executed concurrently with the Conservation Easement, will extinguish the right to mine by MEMC in perpetuity (other than the present and future remediation activities).

With the land exchange, the federal government obtains properties with valuable resources such as wetlands, trails, and wildlife habitat. These federal parcels will be included in the National Forest and managed by the US Forest Service moving forward.   

Official reaction

“What an incredible moment in time for our community and our public lands,” said Julie Nania, the Red Lady director for High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA). “This decision from the United States Forest Service will allow for the land exchange to be finalized along with the agreements to extinguish new mining on Red Lady forever. We can all take ownership of this monumental victory. We would have never reached this point without the decades of steadfast, Gunnison Valley messaging that we don’t want a large-scale mine at the headwaters of our community. At closing this fall we’ll finally be able to celebrate a protected Red Lady!”

One major accommodation is that it will now be legal to climb Red Lady for backcountry ski turns. “Though many of us have summited Red Lady, the conservation easements that are included in the land exchange will finally allow all of us to hike and ski the peak on traditional routes without fear of trespass,” said Jon Hare, advocacy director for HCCA. “Additionally, through the conservation easements, MEMC is preventing future mining or any development on this property. Those are huge protections this community has worked to secure for almost 50 years.” 

Crested Butte mayor Ian Billick said the fight to protect Red Lady continues to come closer to a successful finish. “After nearly 50 years of committed work by HCCA, numerous Red Ladies and engaged citizens, the land exchange is a critical step in the community fully realizing our community’s intention to transition from mining to tourism and recreation,” he said. “Protecting Red Lady is about choosing who we are as a community and what we want our future to be. We are fortunate that Freeport-McMoRan and the USFS have been such strong partners in realizing that vision. The underlying analyses by the federal government supporting the recent Red Lady decisions are unique in that they clearly articulate that the economic importance of tourism and biodiversity supported by our natural ecosystems outweighs the value of mining.”

Gunnison County Commissioner chair Jonathan Houck said it is exciting to be on the edge of success. “It has been encouraging to see all the partners stay at the table working through the details and I am excited for the community to be at the cusp of a long-term, valley-wide goal,” he said.

“I am very pleased to complete this land exchange in partnership with MEMC, the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County, as it accomplishes so much for the community and public at large,” said Stewart.

The town of Crested Butte also has $2 million budgeted to go to the mining company as part of the final deal. “Once the exchange is completed, MEMC plans to relinquish their unpatented claims that are on USFS lands and within the Thompson Divide Mineral Withdrawal area. Once those claims are relinquished, no one else can make claims (for 20 years). At that point the Town will pay the $2 million that voters approved in 2016,” explained Crested Butte town manager Dara MacDonald. “I believe the plan is for that to all occur on the same day as the closing of the land exchange.”

Appraisals meeting the requirements of the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions have been prepared for the Federal and non-Federal parcels. The value of the Federal parcels is $2,490,000. The value of the non-Federal parcels is $1,940,000. A cash payment of $550,000 will be made by MEMC to equalize values.

Post-exchange, the Forest Service will no longer have oversight of the Kebler Pass winter trailhead and a segment of County Road 12 (Kebler Pass Road) because they are within the parcel to be conveyed to Gunnison County. The County will establish its own management regulations, policies and procedures of the trailhead and County Road.

“I am excited to reach this milestone in this complex yet rewarding land exchange,” concluded Gunnison National Forest district ranger Dayle Funka. 

It is expected the documents facilitating the land exchange will be signed this September. According to a Forest Service press release, “The next steps are finalizing deeds, federal attorney review, executing a binding exchange agreement with MEMC, and closing the real estate transaction estimated this fall.”

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