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Know the West

Red Mountain miracle

  In the late 1800s, some 3,000 people lived and worked in the Red Mountain Mining District near the top of Red Mountain Pass between Silverton and Ouray. Just about every acre was clear-cut, built upon or mined. Today, the miners are gone and aspen trees and tundra plants have reclaimed most of the area. The only visible remnants are a handful of ghostly houses and abandoned mine structures, the faint line of a railroad bed, and dozens of mining dumps.

But another potent legacy of the past lingers as well: Thousands of acres of private land – patented mining claims -- that are vulnerable to development. But instead of becoming second-home sites, 9,000 acres, much of the old mining district, have been transferred to public ownership over the past nine years, saving them from the residential construction that has overrun hillsides in other mountain communities across the West.

“Every one of these parcels could have been developed,” said Rick Cable, Rocky Mountain regional forester, at a recent gathering celebrating the completion of the land-acquisition project. “But they will be conserved in perpetuity.”

The Red Mountain Project began in 1998 when a group of volunteers from nearby Ouray and Silverton met to find a way to preserve the historic remnants and scenic landscape near the top of Red Mountain Pass. They brought in local county governments, historical societies, federal agencies, the Trust for Public Land and the Fort Lewis College Office of Community Services to help out. And, with such a broad and diverse base of support, the group was able to acquire $14 million, mostly from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, to purchase the properties. Digging up all that money wasn’t the only challenge: The group also had to sort out the tangled ownership of hundreds of mining claims, some of which had been passed down from generation to generation and were owned by dozens of different parties. Then it had to convince the owners to sell.

Initially, the group hoped to acquire 10,500 acres. Now, the remaining 1,500 acres, still in private hands, are even more valuable than before because they are on the edge of or surrounded by public land. But that didn’t dampen the ebullient mood at the Aug. 18 gathering, held next to the newly public Crystal Lake, where the glassy water held reflections of deep orange mountainsides.

“It’s such a rare place, and so incredibly fragile,” said Mark Wolfe of the Colorado State Historic Fund. “It isn’t going to survive on its own.”

Click to view a complete photogallery of lands preserved by the Red Mountain Project.

More on the Red Mountain Project