Can land trades stop a subdivision and clean up a mine?

 

REDSTONE, Colo. - The public doesn't often benefit from the closure and cleanup of a Western mining operation. But it could at Mid-Continent Resources' defunct coal mines outside this small town.

Through an ambitious series of land swaps, the Forest Service hopes to add about 5,800 acres of the mining company's land to the adjoining White River National Forest.

If the strategy succeeds, not only will the national forest be enlarged at little cost to taxpayers, but money from the land dealings will also help restore the mined land.

After 30 years in operation, Mid-Continent closed the coal mines down in 1991, then filed for bankruptcy. Under a bankruptcy agreement, the company agreed to earmark for reclamation 69 percent of all income generated by the sale of its remaining assets.

The Colorado Department of Minerals and Geology pegged the mines' reclamation cost at about $3 million, but numerous environmental groups doubted that would do the job. Then when the company started to market its land in the basin last year, environmentalists and Redstone residents started worrying about a future as troublesome as an eroding, unreclaimed mine: roads and subdivisions in the high-mountain basin (HCN, 3/7/94).

Now, thanks to the land-swapping effort, those fears have abated.

"We think it's a great idea," says Bill Jochems of the Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association. "We're in favor of all of Mid-Continent's land becoming part of the national forest."

Western Land Group, a private firm in Evergreen, Colo., is attempting to make the idea a reality. Already, the company has some deals in the works. For example, it is currently working with owners of a subdivision near Aspen who want to obtain a 40-acre parcel of Bureau of Land Management land surrounding their development. Once the appraisal on the 40 acres is in, says Western Land Group President Adam Poe, the owners will be told exactly how much Mid-Continent land to buy to exactly match the value of the BLM land.

"We'll be able to balance the swap almost to the dime," says Poe.

The Aspen developers will buy the land from Mid-Continent, then turn it over to the Forest Service in return for the 40-acre parcel of BLM land.

Eventually, the group hopes to transfer the entire 5,800 acres to the national forest. "That's our goal and we expect to do it," says Poe.

Meanwhile, through the sale of its rock-dust plant and several large parcels of land outside the basin, Mid-Continent has raised enough money to seal off 50 holes in the mountainside that serviced mine shafts, says Steve Renner of the Department of Minerals and Geology. Salvage crews have also torn down numerous buildings and hauled off huge amounts of abandoned equipment.

Environmentalists' fears that the abandoned mines will leach contaminated water into Coal Creek are unfounded at this time, says Renner. Bill Jochems, however, remains leery of the clean-up effort. He says his group will continue to monitor its progress after the snows melt.

The writer reports for The Aspen Times, in Aspen, Colorado.

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