The agency collected more than 1,900 public comments on Hard Rock Paving & Redi-Mix Inc.’s proposal to expand its operations and realign an access road at the gravel mine that produces road materials about a mile south of Salida.
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The expansion of the mine, which has operated in Salida since at least the 1940s and is now surrounded by homes, highlights a growing divide in Colorado’s rural enclaves, where tourism, recreation and vacation homes are eclipsing traditional industries like mining and agriculture. Gravel mines are stuck in the middle of this divide, offering critical ingredients for the roads and home construction that support the economies built around tourists, trails and access to public lands. But few gravel mine expansions anywhere in Colorado are welcome and even fewer new gravel mines are accepted.
“Most existing gravel pits have been around for a really, really long time and their neighbors all knew that when they bought their houses and a lot of times they never even know you are there until you send them a letter and tell them you are expanding,” said John Ary, who bought the Hard Rock gravel operation in 1981 to make asphalt, concrete and road base for roads.
Local mountain bikers protested the expansion alongside Methodist Mountain homeowners who argued the mine expansion onto public land would increase truck traffic in their neighborhood and reduce their home values. In February, Hard Rock realigned its expansion plan and promised to redesign and build a new portion of the 1.3-mile Solstice Trail, which local mountain bikers built in 2019 with $50,000 in state funding.
The BLM’s 141-page draft Environmental Assessment issued in late July details three alternatives to the expansion request, which is allowed under the agency’s mission to manage public lands for a variety of uses that include both mining and recreation. Hard Rock operates on 37 acres, which includes 10 acres of BLM land. The mine has operated in the area since the 1950s and the expansion proposal would add 41 to 63 acres of BLM land to the mine’s footprint.
Alternative A, which Hard Rock has proposed, would extend the life of the mine to 50 years and give the mine operator access to 6.4 million tons of aggregate for road construction. Hard Rock would hire a trail building team to relocate, redesign and rebuild the southern portion of the Solstice Trail under this alternative. The BLM noted that mountain bikers “highly value” the downhill experience of the Solstice trail and changing that experience could “displace trail users.”
“Because the trail was designed and constructed using partner grant funding, a complete rebuild may give an unfavorable impression to future grant requests,” reads the BLM’s analysis.
The Salida Mountain Trails group, which spent four years working with the BLM to complete an Environmental Assessment to approve the Solstice trail and another two years to design the trail and secure funding, said the lower portion of the trail is a rocky wash.
“A rerouted trail will not maintain its existing character and will be significantly compromised,” reads a statement provided by Salida Mountain Trails to The Colorado Sun.
Alternative B adds 41 acres of BLM land to the mine and extends the life of the mine to 30 years with access to 4.1 million tons of aggregate. It would not require any disturbance of the bike trail and the operator would build a 30-foot earthen berm buffer between mining operations and the trail.
The BLM noted that reducing Hard Rock’s operations by 20 years would reduce jobs and tax generation at the mine.
Salida Mountain Trails said it would support Alternative B if the buffer was increased to 200 feet to protect riders from noise and dust. Ary said the group “put their trail right next to our existing gravel pit.”
“I’m not sure the reasoning for doing that but we have committed to hiring a professional trail builder to move the trail east and further away from our boundary which would be better for us and better for anybody using that trail,” Ary said.
A third alternative would deny Hard Rock’s request to expand and realign its access road, which the BLM said “could potentially strain” Hard Rock’s ability to provide road base material and concrete to local projects. The analysis says the current pit has about six months of reserves left depending on market demand. The agency noted that truck traffic to the mine would double if expansion was denied because Hard Rock would have to transport gravel and asphalt-making materials from other aggregate mines into its Salida operation.
“If the road realignment on BLM land is not authorized, then the increase in haul truck traffic could cause safety issues to truck drivers entering and leaving the mine site,” the analysis reads. “This would increase the likeliness of vehicle accidents near or around the mine site.”
The Methodist Mountain Homeowners Association is opposing any expansion of the mine, noting that recreational use and neighborhood traffic on County Road 107 accessing the mine have increased and an expansion would add more trucks to the county road.
“Today, traffic from homeowners, heavy trucks, hikers, bicyclists and general visitors to Methodist Mountain has increased exponentially,” reads a letter sent to the BLM on July 21 by Methodist Mountain HOA president Jerry Mallet. “Twenty trucks an hour or 75 per day is common and any expansion will greatly increase this truck traffic on the narrow CR 107.”
Mike Smith, the president of Salida Mountain Trails, said increasing the buffer to 200 feet in Alternative B would be a win for the trail, the cycling community and the mine operator. But unless that adjustment can be made, his group would join homeowners in calling for the BLM to reject any expansion at the gravel mine.
“There is also obviously a major concern for the full expansion to the surrounding Salida community as this area has transformed over the years,” Smith said. “Over the last twenty years vacant land has become residential subdivisions and nearby public lands are being managed for recreation. They didn’t really give us a good alternative in A or B so we have to say C. But B could be better.”
Ary said he would prefer not to haul aggregate from faraway gravel pits to make concrete and asphalt at his Salida operation. The growth in recreation and tourism in Colorado has diversified economies but it’s also put more traffic on the state’s roads. Asking a road builder to import materials from far away “compounds pollution, traffic and everything you are fighting to protect in the state,” Ary said.
“You don’t want to use gravel where it lays but you are OK with going to some other county to get it. Unless that county is your county,” Ary said. “If you are leaning toward the green side of this, the last thing you want to do is import gravel from 150 miles away, if you look at the big picture.”