Ouray County and TLR Advance Innovative
This past December, TLR coordinated a proposal to the USEPA to conduct a Brownfields Assessment of mine-scarred, private properties in the Canyon Creek watershed of Ouray County, Colorado. The goal of this proposal is to assess 4,000 acres of private mining claims to prioritize properties for public acquisition. The Ouray County Board of County Commissioners is the project applicant. The Red Mountain Task Force and the Trust for Public Land, along with TLR are listed as project partners.
Canyon Creek is within the Red Mountain Project area of southwest Colorado. It is a 28 square-mile watershed adjacent and connected to the City of Ouray, in the rugged San Juan Mountains. These mountains have been described as the most visually stunning mountains in the state, and perhaps in the entire west. In addition to spectacular scenery, the San Juans played host to one of the most colorful and productive hardrock mining eras that the world has ever known. The period 1876 to 1918 saw an incredible mining boom, with Canyon Creek and the surrounding Red Mountain Mining District at the center of it.
Today, Ouray is a National Historic District. US Highway 550, the famed “Million Dollar Highway,” traverses and provides access to the lands in and around Ouray and the Red Mountain Mining District. The area’s scenic splendor has led administrators of the National Scenic Byway system to designate the highway as one of only 19 “All-American Roads” in the nation. Each year, the area attracts over a million visitors. Tourism, in short, has replaced mining as the primary economic driver in this part of Colorado. And while the miners are all but gone, they left behind dozens and dozens of structures that have immense historical value and visitor interest. They also left behind waste rock piles, mill tailings, road scars and acid-rock mine drainage. As they have across the rural west, these sites have become the brownfields of Ouray County.
There is urgency to conserving and protecting open space and historical values in the San Juans. The beauty and the mining history of Ouray County are threatened by an onslaught of dispersed second-home building, and real estate speculation. Also, most of the remaining mining relics are in disrepair. Old age, extreme weather and scavenging by souvenir hunters are taking a toll. Most of these structures require stabilization and minimal restoration to keep them standing. The Red Mountain Project was conceived in 1999 to respond to this urgency.
The Red Mountain Project is a nationally recognized, local collaborative effort to conserve over 11,000 acres of mining claims and other historic mining related properties in the geographic triangle formed by the San Juan Mountain towns of Ouray, Telluride, and Silverton. The Red Mountain Project is overseen by the Red Mountain Task Force, a dynamic partnership of local citizens, local governments of three rural counties, two local historical societies, Ft. Lewis College, state and federal regulatory agencies, the United States Forest Service, a non-profit national land conservation organization in the presence of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), and a non-profit state-wide land trust in the presence of the Trust for Land Restoration (TLR).
On behalf of the Red Mountain Project, Trust for Public Land has, to date, received authorization to utilize federal Land and Water Conservation Funds (LWCF) totaling $14.2 million to acquire private property in the Red Mountain, Ouray, and Telluride Mining Districts and convey them to the US Forest Service. By the end of 2003, TPL will have acquired and transferred more than 6,000 acres to the US Forest Service, 3,500 acres of which are in Ouray County. Another 150 acres of inactive mined land has been acquired by Ouray County using non-federal funds, and is now managed by the County as an open space park.
The Canyon Creek Brownfields Assessment has great leverage potential. About $5 million remains in current LWCF authorizations for future Red Mountain Project acquisitions. TPL estimates about 4,000 acres of private inholdings remain to be assessed and prioritized for potential acquisition in Canyon Creek, but additional acquisitions are now hampered by liability concerns related to mine land contamination.
An important element of this proposed assessment will be the liability analysis performed by TLR. Attorneys for the Trust will help analyze the results of environmental assessments, uncover site history, review chain of title, provide legal analysis and opinion, and perform other due diligence tasks that will provide the basis for site prioritization that is a core task of this project.