Can an old mine become a work of art?

  • A photo illustration shows an idea for a temporary fix to help the mine’s fragile structures survive the next winter: a roof-covering tarp depicting miners.

    Bland Hoke
  • The Ute Ule Ore Mill.

    Grant Pound
  • Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Liz Francisco presents her findings to the Hardrock Revision Team.

    Anna Macleod
  • This photo collage includes inspiration for replacing a historically insignificant building with a learning center, and some of the elements that would be included.

    Linda Wysong
  • A photo illustration outlines a proposed plan to rebuild the aerial tramway, used for hauling ore and miners, with the added excitement of a zipline.

    Bland Hoke
  • Linda Wysong works on a 3-D model of the Ute-Ule mine and town site.

    Grant Pound
  • Kicking back at the Texan Resort's Moose Cabin, the Hardrock Revision team discusses community issues with T. Allan Comp, second from left, of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.

    Bland Hoke
  • One idea involved turning the wooden water tank into a camera obscura, with wheelchair access provided by a ramp.

    Anna Macleod
 

Page 2

Complex situations are naturally confusing, and this is one of those that, according to every artist I interview, "is a bit difficult to wrap one's head around," as artist Linda Wysong puts it. The Ute and Ule veins were discovered in 1871 ("Ule" -- "Ulay" -- is a mispronunciation of Ouray, the famous Ute chief), and since then, the mine has gone through many owners, both local and international. A hundred miles of tunnel were dug, the river was dammed, flumes were built, the (mainly Italian) miners went on strike and were fired, nearby Lake City boomed to a population of 6,000 in 1876 and then shrank to its current population of about 400.

At least $10 million worth of silver and lead was extracted between 1874 and 1900. The site's current owner, Washington-based LKA International, a natural resources development company, has never mined here, although it did use the mill for a short while, after buying it in 1983 as part of a package with another gold mine still operating in the area.

And thus sits an old mine, abandoned tailings and all.

And that's where things get messy. When water flows over the exposed mineral-laden rock in and around the mines, it dissolves zinc, cadmium, lead and other metals, creating acid. The contaminated water then dumps into nearby streams. So-called acid mine drainage, most of it from abandoned boom-time relics, pollutes an estimated 12,000 miles of streams throughout the West. The federal Bureau of Land Management and the state are studying various options for cleaning up the Ute-Ule property; the timing, cost and responsibility for cleanup are all yet to be determined. The BLM and the state did a $1.2 million cleanup of tailings piles on adjacent land in 2009, but the main site remains toxic. The environmental study on one half of the area (the "town section") reveals some lead and arsenic, but overall it's pretty clean, and probably only about $70,000 of remediation will be required. The other section (the "mill section"), however, is another story entirely -- the tailings pile and pit hold 150 years of accumulated pollutants. Last winter, an avalanche backed up the creek flowing through the mill section, which got alarmingly close to the tailings pile.

Meanwhile, LKA International offered to donate both mine and ghost town to the county, some 180 acres of land. It's a gift that, understandably, the county has been reluctant to accept without first coming up with an affordable plan for mine restoration and stabilization. As Hinsdale County Commissioner Stan Whinnery says, "We want to know what fleas come with the dog."

Besides hiring an engineer to tackle the problem, the county started a collaboration with Colorado Art Ranch, which can be briefly described as a nomadic interdisciplinary arts organization dedicated to fostering creative problem solving. The county's act was as risky as mining itself -- an act of hope and trust, and a leap of faith. The nonprofit Art Ranch, which was formed in 2005 and has hosted public forums and artist residencies in various Colorado towns, assembled the "Hardrock Revision Team" -- seven artists who came to Lake City for a month. It provided food and housing; grants and donations paid for some of the artists' time and for the many specialists the group hired: an archaeologist, a biologist, an engineer, a geologist, a hydrologist and a mediator.

The artists met with the specialists, they researched, they brainstormed, they gathered in large and small groups. They made posters, a slideshow, diagrams, and a five-foot-wide model of the mine site, constructed from old cardboard boxes and local scrap. When someone suggested a wind harp, they researched harps; when someone suggested phyto-remediation, they got in touch with a lot of experts; and when hydropower came up, the artists looked into whether it was feasible. (It is, and they're recommending it.) Grant Pound, the Art Ranch's executive director, notes that they didn't get weekends off as promised.

This project is emphatically not about outsiders coming in and telling a small town what to do. Collaboration is the only way to go, Pound says: "Frankly, it would be stupid to not include the community; all this would feel like a frivolous exercise."

Lake City, like many small mountain towns, is a mix of old-timers and newcomers, lefties and righties, artists and miners, some with a foot in both worlds. "Involving the community helped direct the artists to focus on things that are possible," says Pound, "and forced them to consider certain parameters -- for example, the heritage, rural economic development, tourism, aesthetics, community, and safety." That's one reason he and the rest of the Hardrock Revision team met with a cross-section of the community once a week -- a business owner, a rancher, a miner, a community developer, a long-term resident, a short-term resident, and so on. The group conducted informal interviews, too, at coffeehouses, bars, and on the sidewalk.

They even salvaged an old Servel refrigerator door from the site itself and plunked it into the meeting room, where it accumulated (as fridge doors tend to do) ideas and miscellany from the community, scribbled on taped-on bits of paper:

Family trees of immigrants
that worked in mine
Bat sanctuary!
Grow mushrooms in open adits
Project bad movies down the mineshaft so that they disappear into oblivion
Create Scientist-in-Residence Program
Pika Research!

Every local I spoke to was in favor of Hardrock Revision's ideas -- from Marian Hollingsworth, the president of the Downtown Improvement and Revitalization Team (DIRT) to George Hurd, who has served as the mine's caretaker for 40-some years, and owns and operates the tourist attraction Hardtack Mine right down the road. "In a few years, that place is gonna be completely rotted out," he tells me. "If you let that place go, you can't replace it. If someone's gonna save it, now is the time."

High Country News Classifieds
  • DEVELOPMENT AND OPERATIONS COORDINATOR
    Development & Operations Coordinator Terms: 1.0 FTE (full-time), Salary DOE ($45,000 - $55,000) Benefits: Paid Time Off (12-24 days/year depending on tenure), Paid Holidays (10/year),...
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...