It is extremely difficult to hide a town for very long and, alas, Crested Butte has been rediscovered. Crested Butte, population about 1,000, is a 19th-century mining town tucked away in a protected nook of the Colorado Rockies south of Aspen. It sits at an altitude of 8,800 feet at the north end of the sparsely settled East River Valley, which is sweet green in the summer, warm gold in autumn and brilliantly white in winter. Mornings in Crested Butte at this time of year are so bright and brisk that they hurt the eye. Afternoons are so pink and still that the effect is hypnotic.
Twenty-five years ago Crested Butte was all but busted after 75 years as a mining boomtown. Recently it has been making a slow comeback as a recreation area. In the mountains surrounding the valley—which glides south for 28 miles from Crested Butte to Gunnison, the county seat—there is hiking, climbing and hunting, particularly for elk. There is kayaking and trout and salmon fishing in the white-water streams. In the summer, hot-air balloons and hang gliders soar over the meadows. Near the mouth of the valley lies Blue Mesa Reservoir, the largest body of water in the state, where there is boating, water skiing and more fishing. The ski resort on Crested Butte mountain offers 35 runs, and at the base of the area is a network of some of the best Nordic trails in the country.
But along with Crested Butte's newfound renown as a recreational area has come the prospect of renewed mining. And the town is reacting as might be expected—it is squirming.
Molybdenum (pronounced moh-lib'-de-num and often called "moly") has been found two miles from town, on 12,414-foot Mount Emmons. This is the peak the locals call Red Lady because of its color, a stunning rouge, at sunset. The find is conservatively estimated to be worth $2 billion. Some say it may be the third-largest known molybdenum deposit in a world that devours the mineral. Molybdenum, a metallic element of the chromium group, is used primarily to strengthen steel, but it is also used in the production of lubricants, fertilizer, rubber and paint.
The mining company that made the huge find on Red Lady is the nation's largest, American Metal Climax Inc. AMAX), 20% of which is owned by Standard Oil of California. Although Mount Emmons is public land, managed by the U.S. Forest Service, AMAX has the legal right to take minerals from it. Environmentalists complain that the U.S. Mining Act of 1872, as amended in 1955, the law that applies, is woefully antiquated and inadequate, but it has survived repeated attempts at repeal because of the strength of mining interests, whose ranks include several Western senators and congressmen.
AMAX would like to build an underground mine on Mount Emmons, going in through the old Keystone mine, which was abandoned in 1975 and sold to AMAX in 1977. The new mine would be operational in six to eight years and could extract from 10,000 to 30,000 tons of earth a day for 20 to 30 years. When the molybdenum is gone, the mountain will be gone, too. Red Lady will have "subsided"—she will have shrunk to an unmajestic mound.
Though it is conceded that AMAX has the legal right to subside a public mountain for private profit, the question now being debated in Gunnison County is whether or not it has the moral right, especially without the approval of the citizens. There also is disagreement as to whether or not AMAX has the technical ability to mine the molybdenum cleanly. And if the answer is yes, how can the community keep less responsible miners from charging into the valley?
"Crested Butte is the hottest issue in U.S. preservation today," says Arthur C. Townsend, Colorado's historic-preservation officer. "It is so complex and it includes so many currently significant national issues. There's the historical value, the potential archeological, recreational, wilderness and educational values. There is a tremendous resource and mining potential to consider. It's all there and it challenges the way this country traditionally makes decisions."
Stan Dempsey is a vice-president of AMAX and its director of environmental control. He is a roundish, avuncular man, pleased to be involved with the Mount Emmons project because it keeps him near the mountains he loves. He believes mining in the Rockies is necessary and a fact of life.
"The fact that a mineral deposit that size exists means that society will get at it one way or another at some point in time," says Dempsey. "There are a lot of communities involved that have a stake in Mount Emmons besides Crested Butte. Gunnison County has a stake, so does the state of Colorado, so does the nation, so does the world. Who has the right to say you can't have a mine on Mount Emmons? We have a national minerals policy that encourages us to go out and find a Mount Emmons and mine it. This is the very best area in the world to look for minerals. I think the question is not should we get at these minerals, but how do we get at them and do the best possible job?