Amax returns with a vengeance

  • Red Lady Bowl on Mount Emmons

    Tiffany Wardman photo
  • Then Crested Butte Mayor Mitchell in 1981

    Sue Navy/High Country Citizens' Alliance

Twenty years ago it was a classic David vs. Goliath battle. Helped by a drop in the worldwide molybdenum market, residents of the ski-resort town of Crested Butte, Colo., chased the world's largest mining conglomerate out of their valley.

But now, Amax is back, locals are crying "blackmail!" and the town council is building a war chest for David vs. Goliath, Part II. For months, Emmons Mining Co., a subsidiary of Cyprus-Amax, has been quietly filing for conditional water rights that would enable it to mill molybdenum in a mine above the town.

In response, Gunnison County and the towns of Mount Crested Butte and Crested Butte filed their opposition to the application. That's when the Amax lawyers got tough. Amax told the community in October to back off or, in effect, dry up. According to its letter, if elected officials continued to oppose the Amax water rights application, the company would suck up water it currently leases to local ranchers and use it to feed the mill.

"It would appear to me that it is not in the best interest of Gunnison County for agricultural lands to be dried up in order to provide a water supply for the Mount Emmons mine," wrote Cyprus-Amax attorney Brian Nazarenus. "Nevertheless, this is exactly what would occur if Climax's application for conditional water rights is denied."

"This was the first pitch in a game of very, very hard ball and a pitch aimed under our chin," commented Gunnison County attorney David Baumgarten.

"Cyprus-Amax is, in very clear language, blackmailing our community," said Denis Hall, president of the High Country Citizens' Alliance, a group that 20 years ago fought Amax's threat of a toxic waste pit that would be taller than Egypt's Aswan Dam. The group has grown over the past two decades, sharpening its claws against proposed transmountain water diversions and timber sales, while building muscle and consensus among local ranchers and environmentalists.

Mine opponents say that after two decades of dealing with a more subtle scraping of the landscape, in the form of subdivisions rather than a mine, they are confronted now by a visceral assault: the gutting of the Red Lady Bowl on Mount Emmons. The mountain looks over the town and also contains the world's third-largest molybdenum deposit.

To head off a mine during the '70s, locals held dances and ski-ins. With the help of a media-savvy mayor and town councils, High Country Citizens' Alliance members received coverage in magazines and newspapers from Los Angeles to New York. They staged several "Bye-Bye, Amax!" parties and Red Lady Salvation Balls. Skiers trekked 24 miles over the mountains to Aspen to recruit help, and a squadron of Aspenites skied back in solidarity.

They also plastered bumpers across the county with "Don't Climax in Crested Butte!" stickers. Local musicians even cut a 45-rpm record of anti-Amax songs (Side B was later recorded by the late John Denver).

This time around, residents are taking their protests directly to court. The towns of Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte, and the Crested Butte Mountain Resort have agreed to kick in $25,000 each to cover $75,000 in initial legal fees. The Crested Butte Town Council is also discussing setting aside $1 million of its $5 million budget to fight the mine. The alliance has enlisted a Denver lawyer to begin the first phase of the activities in water court.

Amax must come up with a mining proposal for the court by Jan. 1, 1998. In the meantime, vintage bumper stickers reading "Don't Climax in Crested Butte" have reappeared on cars around town.

Shara Rutberg is a former HCN intern who writes in Crested Butte, Colorado.

You can ...

* Contact Vicki Shaw, co-director of High Country Citizens' Alliance, at P.O. Box 1066, Crested Butte, CO 81224 (970/349-7104), or,

* Contact Michael Rounds, Cyprus-Amax, 9100 E. Mineral Circle, Englewood, CO 80112 (303/643-5186).