Remedial Action

Thanks to all the people who took the time to come to the public meeting on April the 3rd. Since then there have been further meetings with Hinsdale County Commissioners and DRMS.

I have also written a paper for the ECLAS conference in Warsaw, Poland, in September about the Ute Ulay Project; it’s been a busy week!

It was good to get a feedback regarding what is important to locals up at the Ute Ulay mine site. In general people there want the redevelopment of the site to cover a number of areas.

The site should cover historical, economic, and environmental concerns equally. These areas are intrinsically linked by the physical site, and any actions should consider all three at once (even though it is harder and more complicated!).

It is important for the future maintenance of the historic structures that there is some kind of income from the site (since the tax base in Hinsdale is already stretched). This might come from refurbished buildings being let out on a concessionary basis. The best way to maintain a building is to use it. In addition, this might provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs to widen the (very short and intense) tourist season when they need to make most of their money for the year.

For the potential Ute Ulay businesses to be successful, there will need to be visitors. We already know that there are thousands of visitors to the Alpine Loop who pass straight through the Ute Ulay, but if they can read the historical narrative of the site they’ll be more likely to stop – and more likely to return. As Richard Francaviglia notes in his wonderful book Hard Places, historic preservation is a huge tourist attractor in the USA, but many mining landscapes are not valued as much as beautiful old buildings. So, I propose that the landscape be retained and made useable wherever possible. A light touch is needed.

For all of the historical and economic parts to work, the site needs to be considered safe, and the stability of the tailings ponds needs to be addressed. In most cases tailings ponds are remodelled with the implicit assumption that they should be made to look ‘natural’; this strategy was used at the Ute Ulay’s former tailings ponds a little further up the Alpine Loop. The community (at least the ones who came to the meeting) were in agreement that this is not an appropriate approach for the Ute Ulay.

There are more studies due to take place on the ground conditions at the Ute Ulay in coming months. It will be interesting to see what they bring to light. But for now we know that the lead-rich tailings ponds along the banks of Henson Creek are a potential environmental hazard; because ‘release of these tailings during a major storm event or by failure of an impoundment structure would certainly put these materials into Henson Creek’ (Nash 2002). Remediation will involve stabilisation, and this may mean large-scale disturbance of material on site, though the details are still to be worked out.

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The Alpine Loop

Many folks visit the Lake City area due to the precipitous and thrilling alpine loop backcountry byway. If you have a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, you can travel over un-metalled, bumpy (terrifying) routes that were carved out by miners in order to access remote work places at up to 12,800 ft. Along the route you will see many traces of mining in the landscape, like the coloured piles of waste-rock and tailings in the mid-ground of the picture below.

You may also see ghost towns, and bits and bobs of leftover mining structures and infrastructure.

Up in Lake City tourism is an important part of the economy. Since the tax base from private land is so low, it makes sense that visitors bringing in money from outside is a great way to boost income. Plus, Lake City is an interesting and unique place – it has a lot to offer the holiday-maker: sublime views, calm and isolation, wilderness, a ski-hill suitable for learners, a whole host of historic buildings, taxidermy galore, friendly mountain men and women, and a cat in the post-office who pops out of the lower PO boxes on occasion.

As a confirmed map geek I love the maps created and shared by the Alpine Loop Spatial Analysis and Mapping project (check out this beauty).

The Ute Ulay mine site straddles the alpine loop, about just outside Lake City. There were 611,000 Alpine Loop user days in 2008 – that means there is potentially lots of passing trade at the Ute Ulay. Click on the graphic below to see numbers of visitors.

Belonging

The Ute Ulay Mine is in Hinsdale County. The long, rectangular Ute and Ulay mine claims are laid over the rugged terrain and represent private ownership, as do all the mining claims in the county. Land ownership in Hinsdale County is unusual in that it is mostly public land.

Public land makes up 95.3% of all land in Hinsdale County; and of that, 49% is wilderness area. Public land is governmentally owned, is managed by federal agencies, and is not taxable.

There are varied restrictions as to what activities are allowed in different parcels of public land. Generally recreational activities of some sort are allowed, though the regulations differ in different types of public land; as you drive along any road, you see signs letting you know that you have just passed from one designation to another. I find it fairly confusing – activities such as camping, horse riding, mountain biking are allowed in some areas – whereas only hiking is allowed in others (wilderness areas).

If you look at private land ownership in Hinsdale County, you can see some patterns:

Of the 4.7% of privately-owned land, there are many square parcels that have been claimed around water (a precious resource here), there are other square parcels that make up ranches – these are often close to roads (but I’m not sure which came first, the ranch or the road), and the long, thin, rectangular strips are mining claims – just like the Ute and Ulay.

In Hinsdale County these mining claims exist mainly around a geological feature called a ‘caldera‘. This is  a feature left by a volcano, where a large pocket of larva has erupted, leaving an empty space below that the land falls into. The surrounding fractures in the rock are just the right type of place for mineralisation to occur. Mineralisation in this location often means silver, gold, lead etc. Hence the many claims.

Some things are only really visible to us from the ground; the steep terrain and outline of the horizon, but others only show up when we plot them on a map.