Skip to contents
Environment

Newly discovered “Witches’ Pantry” cave above Glenwood Springs could further complicate mine expansion

The cave news comes as Rocky Mountain Resources CEO retires and the company reports monthly losses of $830,000 and cumulative losses of more than $35 million

  • Credibility:
Dripstone formations in the lower level of Witches’ Pantry Cave, which spelunkers discovered last fall in the middle of a proposed limestone-harvesting mine expansion above Glenwood Springs. (Kristen Levy, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Spelunkers have discovered a new cave inside the proposed expansion of a limestone quarry above Glenwood Springs. 

“We can’t say this is going to be just as big, but given that it’s nearby the Glenwood Caverns, it’s certainly a possibility that we could have thousands of feet of passage. There could be big rooms, rare life, we don’t know,” said Richard Rhinehart, who was among a team of cavers who submitted a report on the new cave they found above Glenwood Springs to the Bureau of Land Management as the agency reviews the expansion plan.

“We do know that it would be absolutely gone if the area is mined for limestone. It will be an ex-cave.”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins. Become a Newsletters+ Member to get The Outsider at coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

The discovery comes as Rocky Mountain Resources — the fledgling mining company seeking to exponentially expand its Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry above Glenwood Springs — loses more than $800,000 a month. Its warnings to potential investors grow increasingly dire with each financial report the company submits. 

We do know that it would be absolutely gone if the area is mined for limestone. It will be an ex-cave.

Richard Rhinehart, one of the cavers who discovered “Witches’ Pantry”

“We do not generate adequate cash flows to support our existing operations. Moreover, the historical and existing capital structure is not adequate to fund our planned growth,” reads the company’s latest filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission for March 2018 to March 2019, which showed an annual loss of $8.2 million and a net loss of $35.4 million since the company formed in 2014.

The company has not filed any financial reports for the final nine months of 2019, citing budget constraints and a lack of accounting personnel. 

READ: The politically connected owner of a Glenwood Springs quarry wants a massive expansion. Residents are preparing for a fight.

That’s up from $32.9 million in cumulative losses the company reported for the three months ending Dec. 31, 2018. That’s a loss of $2.5 million over the first three months of 2019, or about $830,000 a month. 

The politically connected company’s push for federal approval to expand its limestone quarry above the Colorado River from 16 acres to 447 acres has galvanized a chorus of opposition from local communities, including Glenwood Springs, which has directed $1.2 million toward a public campaign against the plan.

Kathy DuChene begins the descent into Witches’ Pantry Cave in November 2019. (Norm Thompson, special to The Colorado Sun)

The resort community views the mine expansion — which would direct a steady stream of aggregate-hauling trucks through the city’s downtown — as a threat to its tourism-based economy as well as its trademark hot springs.

In the recent filing, the company announced its chief executive and co-founder, Chad Brownstein, was retiring from the position but would remain an employee and chairman of the company’s board.

Brownstein’s father, Norm, heads the Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck law firm that once employed now Interior Secretary David Bernhard, who directs the Bureau of Land Management that is studying the company’s expansion proposal. 

Rocky Mountain Resources paid the influential Denver law firm $438,576 in legal fees in the year ended March 2019, according to the company’s Jan. 3, 2020, filing with the SEC. The company’s president, Gregory Dangler, a 2004 graduate of the Air Force Academy, will take over as CEO.

In its last financial report filed with the SEC in October 2019 for the three months ended Dec. 31, 2018, the company used similarly gloomy declarations, noting it was spending $700,000 a month and warning investors it needed $10 million to $20 million from a stock offering “to successfully execute our business plan.”

Politically connected investment firm Rocky Mountain Resources wants to grow its Mid-Continent Limestone Quarry, seen in the upper left of the photo, above Glenwood Springs from about 16 acres to 447 acres. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun and EcoFlights)

The City of Glenwood Springs this week filed a motion to intervene in Rocky Mountain Resources’ state court lawsuit against Garfield County, in which the company is challenging the county’s ability to enforce permit violations.

Glenwood Springs, which last November unveiled its “Don’t Strip Glenwood” public campaign to block the mine expansion, wants to join the county in the lawsuit so it can fight to protect its interests. 

RMR in May 2019 sued Garfield County in both state and federal courts after the county demanded it remedy violations to its special-use permit.

The lawsuits have helped the city gather support from 10 neighboring communities in its fight against the mine expansion, which the Bureau of Land Management is reviewing

This week Grand Junction caver Rhinehart — a member of the Colorado Cave Survey — released a report on the new cave he found in October with Rifle spelunker Rob McFarland. The pair named the cave — the first new cave found in the area since 1985 — Witches’ Pantry after the pile of animal bones they found below the steep entrance. 

“Like bones stored for cooking a witch’s brew,” Rhinehart said. 

They had been searching for potential caves after reading a geological report — part of the environmental review of the mine expansion proposal — that noted possible caverns in the limestone layers Rocky Mountain Resources wanted to mine. 

“We were very surprised by the discovery given that you could see the City of Glenwood Springs from the entrance. It’s very rare to find a new cave so close to an urban area,” Rhinehart said. 

After subsequent explorations last fall, the pair wrote a report detailing their discovery — including warm, moist air blowing from fissures leading to lower levels, potentially indicating a connection to geothermal systems that feed the city’s hot springs below — and submitted it to the BLM for review as the agency analyzes the expansion plan. 

The BLM is conducting a variety of surveys to establish a baseline for its Environmental Impact Statement review of the proposed expansion. A survey of caves will be part of the initial studies, said BLM spokesman Dave Boyd. But more importantly the agency is conducting an examination of the minerals Rocky Mountain Resources wants to mine at the quarry to determine if the minerals are “locatable” or “common.”

If those minerals are determined to be “common,” such as basic limestone and aggregate, the agency will be able to more strictly enforce environmental regulations. If the minerals are found to be more valuable “locatable” minerals, as Rocky Mountain Resources asserts in its request for expansion, federal law dating back to 1872 allows for lesser regulation and easier access to public lands. 

“If it falls under the 1872 mining law, we have much less discretion,” Boyd said, noting that the mineral exam usually requires one-to-two years and could be completed this year. 

Rhinehart and a collection of avid cavers hope to return to the area in the spring when the snow thaws and explore Witches’ Pantry as well as search for more caves. When cavers first plumbed the 3.5-mile Glenwood Caverns in the 1950s, it took almost a decade to fully explore the cave that would become one of the region’s most popular tourist attractions.

“Almost certainly there are more cave passages,” Rhinehart said. “What we are seeing at Witches’ Pantry is very reminiscent of Glenwood Caverns when it was discovered.”

The proposed expansion of the Mid-Contintent Limestone Quarry above Glenwood Springs by the politically connected Rocky Mountain Resources has spurred the city to create a taxpayer funded campaign against the plan. The mine’s existing footprint of roughly 16 acres is in yellow and the proposed expansion is in red. (Provided by City of Glenwood Springs)

We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.