A small mine, located about 3/8-mile up the Avalanche Creek road, has been in operation as a one-person, privately owned mine since the early ‘90s. It was somewhat unsightly, but largely flew under the radar, being quite visible, yet drawing little attention. Pitkin County regulated the mining operation in accordance with mining laws and county zoning then in place. In 2009, the mine was sold to the Elbram Stone Company which, soon-after taking title, filed an application with the Forest Service to reopen the mine and dramatically expand its operation, hoping to mine alabaster.
In 2011, the CVEPA Directors met with the District Ranger of the Aspen/Sopris district in the White River National Forest to explore options to minimize the environmental impact of the proposed mine expansion under new ownership. The Forest Service agreed with the importance of minimizing the environmental impacts, and reminded us that the direction from the USFS will be limited by the General Mining Law of 1872.
The previous operation of the White Banks Mine was done under a permit from the the Forest Service in 1995, which expired in 2010. This plan did not allow winter operation. The Elbram Stone Company has applied for year-round operation of the mine over the next 20 years, with three shifts/day, seven days/week. Up to ten tractor trailer shipments per day were expected from the site with on-site storage of up to 500 pallets, each weighing about 4,000 pounds.
After reviewing the range of environmental issues surrounding the Elbram proposal for expanded operation, the CVEPA Directors concluded that the most serious environmental threat centers around winter operation and its impact on the resident bighorn herd. Bighorn in Colorado, and more particularly the herd that winters between Filoha Meadows and Avalanche Creek, has struggled significantly over the past decade. In recognition of this, the CPW (formerly DOW) has posted strict pedestrian and motorized winter closures for the Filoha Meadow and Avalanche Creek drainage for some time. Disturbances from an active mine are inconsistent with protecting this struggling herd. The Board does not see any way this conflict can be mitigated if winter operation is permitted.
In 2012, CVEPA responded to the Forest Service regarding the Elbram application for an expanded mining permit with a long list of environmental concerns. Later that year the Forest Service formally rejected the Elbram application to expand the mine and its operation, and largely supported the concerns raised by CVEPA. Elbram then filed an appeal, asking the Forest Service to reconsider the objections to their application. Soon after the District Ranger ruled on the Elbram application, he accepted a transfer to another National Forest and the Elbram appeal was transferred to the newly appointed District Ranger. The appeal was required to be sent to the Denver office of the USFS, where a review committee studied the application. Based primarily on the 1872 mining law, the Denver based committee reversed many of the Elbram objections to the initial application.
The Elbram company was still not satisfied with some of the remaining objections in the revised Forest Service ruling, and filed another appeal to a Regional Forest Service Resolution Board in Nebraska. CVEPA was not satisfied with the revised Forest Service ruling either, and chose to counter the Elbram appeal.
The CVEPA Board feels that the expanded mining operation will have a major impact on the bighorn sheep herd that shares wintering time between Filoha Meadows and Avalanche Creek. Since the herd must travel through the mining area to travel between these two grazing areas, 24-hour mining through the winter months will block the route and force the herd to abandon one of the two areas. Bighorn sheep in Colorado have been in a state-wide decline over the past decade. Over this time the local Filoha herd has declined from something of the order of 35 down to about 10. It was felt that CVEPA had a significant point and would likely prevail with our objection. However, the Forest Service Regional Resolution Board dismissed our appeal, not on its technical merits, but because it failed to meet the legal requirements of the Code of Federal Regulations, as defined in article 36 CFR 215.14(b)(9).
After 2 ½ years of back-and-forth appeals and counter appeals, the local Forest Service directors issued a Final Record of Decision in 2015. The Forest Service review boards in Denver ruled that they found no “significant environmental impacts with the expanded White Banks Plan of Operation”. Access to the public lands in Avalanche Creek remains open and managed by the White River National Forest’s management plan. Although CVEPA disagrees with the assessment of the proposed mine’s impact to the Bighorn population, we recognize that, according to the final proposal, potential environmental impacts and the kind of rock and its specific value will be monitored. As of mid 2016, no mining activity or road relocation has been started.