For nearly 30 years, the people of Crested Butte, Colo., have fought mining claims on Mount Emmons, known locally as "the Red Lady" — a beloved backcountry skiing spot and the town's breathtaking backdrop.
The town's determination to save the Red Lady heralded a shift in values in Western mining communities, from resource extraction to recreation. As Roger Flynn, managing attorney for the Western Mining Action Project, says, "This was the first fight where a mining town said, 'No, our future is different from our past.' "
But a recent decision by the Bureau of Land Management may reverse decades of efforts to protect the mountain. On April 2, BLM director Kathleen Clarke issued patents for nine claims to multinational mining giant Phelps Dodge Corporation. Thanks to the 1872 Mining Law, the company snagged 155 acres at Red Lady's summit for $875, or about $5 an acre.
"The Bush administration just gave away hundreds of millions of dollars in public land," says Flynn, who is representing the Town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County and the High Country Citizens' Alliance in a federal lawsuit challenging Clarke's decision.
Although Phelps Dodge representative Ken Vaughn says that the company has no immediate plans to begin mining, some locals are worried, now that the mining company owns the land outright. "It could be turned into a 1,300-acre (housing) development," observes rancher and Gunnison County Commissioner Fred Field. "It could mean there's a thrust again for a (molybdenum) mine. There's impacts either way."