Inside the rare alliance to block mining on a Colorado mountain

By Hannah Northey | 04/26/2024 01:28 PM EDT

The Forest Service is considering a land exchange that would end the possibility of molybdenum mining on Mount Emmons, a backcountry skiing destination known as the “Red Lady.”

The town of Crested Butte, Colo. is shown in the Slate River Valley just below the massive towering Mount Emmons also known as "Red Lady" on March 7, 2004.

The town of Crested Butte, Colo. is shown in the Slate River Valley just below the massive towering Mount Emmons also known as "Red Lady" on March 7, 2004. Nathan Bilow/AP Photo

For more than four decades, residents of a remote Colorado town surrounded by a national forest rallied to stop miners from digging into Mount Emmons, a summit in the Rockies known as the “Red Lady” for its early morning hue.

They’ve protested by skiing down — and up — the mountain’s massive slopes donned in red lace, sequins and parasols. Residents of Crested Butte organized parades, threw parties, filed lawsuits and lobbied lawmakers in the halls of Congress.

The grassroots campaign started in the 1970s, when mining companies discovered a massive deposit of molybdenum — an element mixed into steel alloys used for solar panels and wind technology — under the mountain.


Now, local officials, the federal government and the company that owns the rights to minerals under Mount Emmons are on the cusp of an agreement that would permanently block mining at the Red Lady, a destination for backcountry skiing, mountain biking and other outdoor activities.

“I’m unaware of anything like this in the United States,” said Julie Nania, the water director for the High Country Conservation Advocates, who’s worked with a subsidiary of Freeport-McMoRan since 2016 to reach a deal. “We’ve had to work through a lot of sticky issues to make this happen.”

Several layers of protection are falling into place.

Earlier this month, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signed an order to ban mining and oil and gas drilling for 20 years on 221,898 acres of federal lands within western Colorado’s pristine Thompson Divide, including Mount Emmons. The announcement marked a win for lawmakers like Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, who has for years called for the area to be protected.

The mineral withdrawal, however, does not include private land owned by Mt. Emmons Mining, a subsidiary of Freeport-McMoRan, on the mountain. That's put the focus on a proposed land exchange, which the Forest Service is reviewing.

Under that swap, the mining company would relinquish 625 acres in Gunnison and Saguache counties to the federal government — including four ranches containing sprawling wetlands and habitat for the Canada lynx and the Gunnison sage grouse, two species listed as threatened, according to federal documents.

In exchange, the mining company would receive 539 acres of land within the Gunnison National Forest that contains a lead and zinc tailings facility tied to the historic Keystone mine, as well as a water treatment facility. It's a move that will make it easier for Freeport-McMoRan to continue conducting reclamation on that land.

As the land exchange unfolds, Mt. Emmons Mining is expected to establish a conservation easement on its private land and the newly acquired national forest land with the Crested Butte Land Trust, which would bar commercial and residential development and allow for backcountry skiing on Red Lady in perpetuity, said Scott Owen, a spokesperson for the Forest Service. The mining company would also relinquish more than 1,200 unpatented mining claims within the Thompson Divide withdrawal area upon completing the larger land exchange, Owen added.

“The Mount Emmons land exchange is in the works and nearing a decision this summer,” Owen said. “If the land exchange is completed, it will result in Mount Emmons not being mined and ensures reclamation work will continue.”

Roger Flynn, director and managing attorney for the nonprofit Colorado-based Western Mining Action Project, said it’s been a long time coming.

“Everything's going to fall in place. … It’s been a 45-, 50-year struggle,” said Flynn, who’s worked against potential mining at the site for decades. “It’s a rare occasion that everyone is going to be happy when this is done. … Usually you don’t see that in environmental battles.”

‘A town fighting to save itself’

Local residents opposed to the mining of Mount Emmons near Crested Butte — also known as the "Red Lady" — hang flags during a ski protest.
Local residents opposed to the mining of Mount Emmons near Crested Butte — also known as the "Red Lady" — hang flags during a ski protest. | Forest Woodward/High Country Conservation Advocates

The fight to save the mountain became a defining issue for Crested Butte in the 1970s, right as the community was shifting from one reliant on mining of coal and silver to one focused on tourism, skiing and environmental sustainability, said Ian Billick, the town’s mayor and executive director of the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory.

“The hippies, the crunchy people showed up and they’re sort of starting to interface with all of these miners from Eastern Europe,” said Billick. “These two generations are coming together, the older mining generation, the next generation of the late '60s, early '70s, sort of ski bums.”

“This issue emerged right at that interface,” Billick added.

Mining companies throughout the years have been focused on a massive deposit of molybdenum that was discovered underneath Mount Emmons in the 1970s by researchers working at AMAX Exploration, which would later be merged and bought out by other miners before being acquired by Freeport-McMoRan in 2007.

A New York Times reporter who traveled to Crested Butte in 1979 chronicled the fight in the small mountain hamlet, which had become home to transplants from New York, California and Atlanta.

In that article, reporter Roger Neville Williams described how AMAX, formerly American Metal Climax Inc., wanted to extract the molybdenum deposit — then thought to be worth $7 billion — two miles from town and that the “urban refugees who have settled permanently in Crested Butte, and who see themselves as preservationists of the surrounding wilderness and of the historic landmark to which they have brought a renaissance, are not too happy about it.”

Even then, the company was working to clean up the historic lead and zinc Keystone mine at the site. Today, the company is working with Trout Unlimited to ensure the defunct mine doesn't pollute Coal Creek, the primary water supply for Crested Butte.

But the company’s push to mine for molybdenum triggered fierce resistance, Williams noted. “All anyone can talk about in town is ‘the mine,’” wrote Williams. “Crested Butte is a town fighting to save itself.”

Nania’s group, the High Country Conservation Advocates, was born out of that fight. It continues to hold regular protests by skiing, throwing parties and climbing Mount Emmons to drum up support and attention.

Nania said she began working with Freeport-McMoRan shortly after Mt. Emmons Mining acquired the property with the support of the town of Crested Butte and Gunnison County.

Jim Telle, a spokesperson for Freeport-McMoRan, said the company acquired the land with the “understanding that the community did not support future mining.”

The company, he said, agreed to “work on cost-effective solutions to environmental stewardship at the site, as well as the mutually beneficial disposition of mining claims.”

Going forward, Telle said the land exchange and conservation easement will allow the company to continue remediation at the former Keystone mine while allowing local communities to enjoy the mountain.

When asked about the value of the molybdenum at the site, Telle said Freeport-McMoRan doesn’t have an economic model, “as we purchased the site to ensure that reclamation continues.”

Push for permanent protections

A lengthy pressure campaign on Capitol Hill has helped keep protections for the Red Lady front and center — and Democrats like Bennet are still pushing for a permanent solution.

In the summer of 2022, Bennet joined Colorado Democratic Sen. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Joe Neguse and Gov. Jared Polis in calling on President Joe Biden to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to protect the 400,000 acres of federal lands in Colorado’s Thompson Divide. Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert, whose current district includes the divide, has opposed protections.

For more than a decade, Bennet championed protecting the region through the "Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act," a bill that would, in part, permanently protect the Thompson Divide.

Despite being repeatedly reintroduced, the bill has failed to make it through Congress, with Republican lawmakers opposing the removal of public lands from mining and energy development.

Bennet “has really led the charge through the 'CORE Act,' which precipitated all of this,” said Billick. “To get a permanent mineral withdrawal requires congressional action. Because they could not get the 'CORE Act' through on a bipartisan basis through the Senate, he went to President Biden and then asked President Biden for the administrative withdrawal.

“The idea is that the mineral withdrawal will give us 20 years to get that legislation approved, and it's really his office that has driven that charge,” Billick added.

Billick said he’s not worried about lawmakers opposing the deal or a future administration reversing it. Instead, he expressed concern that federal officials may take too long reviewing the land swap under the National Environmental Policy Act and be forced to start over. The Forest Service, he said, conducted the NEPA analysis last year.

Still, Billick said he’s hopeful the deal will be finalized this summer and said protesters, city officials and residents will all celebrate.

“There will be a party, a big celebration and a lot of people in red dresses,” he said.