This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.
In it, he covers the industry from the inside out, plus the fun side of being outdoors in our beautiful state.
CRESTED BUTTE — When the American Metal Climax company in the late 1970s proposed a 30-year plan to mine a massive molybdenum deposit at an abandoned mine on Mount Emmons above Crested Butte, the miners sparked a fight that would last nearly half a century.
The residents of Crested Butte in the 1970s were championing their end-of-the-road community’s transition from a mining town. They were a nature-loving lot, ready to help grow an economy that relied on recreation, tourism and beauty, not moly. The fight to protect the Red Lady — the local name for the 12,392-foot peak above town that glows pink at dawn and dusk, or, depending on whom you ask, can reveal the face of a woman in fading light — would be a defining campaign for Crested Butte.
But in the late 1970s, the locals needed help to block the AMAX plan. Over the Elk Mountain range, their town-transitioning colleagues in Aspen were renowned for their “freak power” political prowess. They could get media attention and big donors to support efforts to protect their valley’s character and natural resources.
So a band of shaggy Crested Buttians, outfitted with leather boots, skinny skis and woolen knickers, set off on the Red Lady Protest Ski in February 1979. They tramped up Star Pass, spent the night in hand-dug snow caves and skied into Aspen, where they held a parade through downtown, urging their mountain-town comrades to join the fight to block moly mining in Crested Butte.
“People would ask us, what are you doing? And we’d tell them we were fighting to save the Red Lady,” said Jim Starr, a Crested Butte attorney who helped organize the 1979 and 1980 ski protests. “There were about 15 of us on the first ski tour and about 40 of us in the parade. There were so many folks in the street watching.”
The Aspen newspapers covered it. So did the Crested Butte paper. Some donations started flowing into the then-nascent High Country Citizens Alliance (now High Country Conservation Advocates) that was orchestrating the battle to block AMAX. It worked so well in 1979 they did it again in 1980 with twice as many skiers and paraders.
“It was a pretty good success,” said Starr, recalling that a dog collapsed a snow cave, demanding difficult digging in the dark to rebuild the chilly shelter. “It kinda set us on the path to where we are now.”
In 1984, AMAX slowed its plan to dig up that moly, which ranks among the largest known deposits in the world worth many billions of dollars. That gave Crested Butte time to dig in for a protracted protest. Forty years later, after lawsuits and four different mine owners’ plans that soared and crashed with the fickle price of moly, a mineral used to strengthen steel, the town is closer than ever to winning the longest running mine battle in the West.
Julie Nania and Laura Yale want to help keep the flame for the Red Lady burning to make sure the mining plan is fully, finally scorched. The two friends — each crowned a Red Lady at the town’s 45-year-old annual Red Lady Salvation Ball — will ski the annual Grand Traverse, a 40-mile race that climbs nearly 7,000 vertical feet over the Elks between Crested Butte and Aspen, in their shiniest Red Lady costumes on April 2 to commemorate their mine-fighting forebears.
“We want to tell the Red Lady story to a broader audience than just our valley,” said Nania, who directs the Red Lady mining strategy for High Country Conservation Advocates.
Nania and Yale’s trek to Aspen will include a bit more celebration than their protesting, parading pioneers. Those heavy-packed, snow-cave-digging skiers needed to stir the infamous Aspen ire and shed light on an existential threat to Crested Butte. Nania and Yale will be honoring the end of a victorious battle that has stretched for nearly half a century.
“There’s something pretty exciting about collaboratively resolving a 46-year mine fight. That doesn’t happen,” Nania said. “Now it’s just a matter of getting everyone across the finish line.”
That’s what Yale and Nania will be thinking about as they skin over Star Pass into Aspen on April 2.
“Putting all our energy there, just like we do every time we skin up Red Lady,” Nania said.
The energy is needed, Nania said. There are are a bunch of parts still shifting around in the final round of the Red Lady fight.
In 2016, Crested Butte voters approved $2.1 million in bonds — to be paid back with the town’s Real Estate Transfer Tax — so the town could pay mining giant FreeportMcMoRan’s Mount Emmons Mining Co. to extinguish some 1,365 unpatented mining claims on about 9,000 acres above the town. That money changes hands when the federal withdrawal is complete.
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The Forest Service now is studying a land exchange with the Mount Emmons Mining Co. That deal would give the mining company about 550 acres next to the Keystone Mine on Red Lady so it can more efficiently maintain a water treatment plant. In exchange. the mining company would deliver to the Forest Service about 646 acres in four parcels in Gunnison and Saguache counties.
That deal includes a conservation easement with the Crested Butte Land Trust and the mining company asking the federal government to withdraw mineral rights on mine-owned land, which will permanently remove any chance of mining or development on the private acres on and around Mount Emmons. (The easement will allow recreational access, of course, so those Crested Butte skiers like Nania and Yale can keep carving tracks in the bowl above town.)
And then there’s the Biden Administration’s proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal on the 224,794 acres in the Thompson Divide. Most recognized stretches of the Thompson Divide are centered around the Crystal River Valley, but the divide stretches over to Crested Butte and includes Mount Emmons. The Bureau of Land Management has begun a National Environmental Policy Act analysis of the proposed withdrawal and the Forest Service is expected to launch its review of the proposal this year.
And finally, the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act, which passed the U.S. House five times but keeps stalling in the U.S. Senate, would permanently withdraw mineral mining and energy development on public lands in the Thompson Divide.
“It’s an exciting time,” Nania said. “We are so close, but there is a ton of work left to make this happen.”