A Legacy of Land
… And Other Perks of Having a Mining Giant in Your Back Yard

Part 8 in “The Mine Next Door” Series

by Samantha Tisdel Wright

Just past a tight S-curve at mile post 82 on Red Mountain Pass – up above Idarado’s old company houses – there’s a little hill that the Idarado Mine blasted flat for a scenic overlook.

If you go up there on a quiet autumn day, you can almost imagine Fred Searls, Jr., Fred Wise and Johnny Wise standing off to one side, hands stuffed in pockets, peering out at the remnants of the mine they helped spawn all those years ago.

Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, Idarado’s founding fathers bought up thousands of acres’ worth of historic mining claims in the Red Mountain and Telluride area and stitched them together into the biggest mine that ever existed in the San Juan Mountains.

Back then, the value of this corporate-owned alpine splendor lay underground, in the polymetallic veins that were waiting to be mined. Words like “view-shed” hadn’t been invented yet.

But in the final years of the old millennium, a new land rush was on. Idarado found itself sitting on a treasure trove of untamed land with million-dollar views that beckoned to outdoor enthusiasts, tourists and real estate speculators alike.

With the mine shut down and the bulk of the remediation now complete, Idarado didn’t need this sprawling, impossibly scenic real estate empire anymore. Rather than holding onto it or selling it off piece by piece to the highest bidder, Idarado teamed up with the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, the United States Forest Service and a local grassroots group called the Red Mountain Task Force to ensure most of it was conserved as open space.

The four-way partnership formed the core of a broader regional conservation effort in the late 1990s and early 2000s known as the Red Mountain Project that preserved threatened historic landscapes and structures above Telluride, Silverton and Ouray and returned them to the public domain.

The Red Mountain Project’s story trailed from the Colorado high country to the halls of Congress, and starred a tenacious cast of characters who banded together against the odds to save the wild, historic heart of the San Juan Mountains from development.

A Force to be Reckoned With

The Red Mountain Task Force was a 15-member-strong group of local representatives from the U.S. Forest Service, Ouray and San Juan County historical societies, both county governments, the Ouray Trail Group and Ft. Lewis College that coalesced in the late 1990s in response to the looming threat of development in the historic Red Mountain Mining District between Silverton and Ouray.

“We realized that if we wanted to save this beautiful landscape we would have to raise money and buy it,” said Task Force founder Bev Rich, a Silverton native who has been dubbed San Juan County’s “Queen of Preservation”.

Time was of the essence.

A Castle Rock man named Frank Baumgartner had put 1,600 acres of mining claims and iconic mining ruins in the heart of the Red Mountain Mining District on the market – including such treasures as the Yankee Girl headframe – and had enlisted controversial broker-developer Tom Chapman to market this hallowed ground for development.

“Baumgartner’s vision was log cabins as far as the eye can see; he envisioned a whole village up there,” said Ouray native Bob Risch, who chaired the Task Force. “He was going to sell the whole shebang for $5.5 million.”

The Task Force targeted Baumgartner’s land for purchase. But before long, their vision expanded to buy up as many other private mining claims in the Red Mountain area as they could – from ridgeline to ridgeline on both sides of US 550, and from Crystal Lake in Ironton Park all the way to the top of Red Mountain Pass.

Although the project eventually grew well beyond this scope – spilling over the mountains and deep into San Miguel County – it was always known as the Red Mountain Project.

The Red Mountain Task Force teamed up with the Trust for Public Land, a national nonprofit land conservation organization, and together they hatched a plan:

The Task Force would seek out as many local property owners as possible to participate in the project, and drum up grassroots local support. TPL would provide marketing plus political energy at the Washington, D.C. level to get Congress to appropriate money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, and spearhead appraisals, mapping and title work on the ground.

Eric Love, director of projects for TPL's Southwest Regional Office in Santa Fe, was TPL’s point man for the project, and deftly navigated its murkiest waters – multiple landowners, confusing title questions, and potential environmental liability issues at old mining sites.

When negotiations to purchase Baumgartner’s property didn’t work out, Love shifted his focus across the valley to woo the biggest property owner in the ‘hood – the Idarado Mine.

What’s Mine is Yours

Over the years, Idarado had consolidated over 10,000 acres of patented and unpatented mining claims on both the Red Mountain and Telluride sides of the mine, encompassing some of the most spectacular and iconic high country in the San Juans: Imogene Pass, Black Bear Pass, Savage Basin, Marshall Basin, Middle Basin, Ingram Basin, Bridal Veil Basin, Blue Lake, Lewis Lake, Ptarmigan Lake, not to mention everything west of US 550 from Ironton Park to the top of Red Mountain Pass.  

Idarado vice president and general manager Rick River had thought a lot about what to do with all this land, now that the Remedial Action Plan was pretty much wrapped up.

When Love sauntered into River’s office in Ouray one day in 1999 with a tailor-made solution to take almost all of Idarado’s property off its hands at fair market value and transfer it to the USFS, River thought, “Why not?”

After all, the myriad patented mining claims Idarado assembled had been carved out of the public domain in the first place, way back when, under the terms of the 1872 Mining Act. There was a tidy symmetry to returning that land to the public domain now, as Idarado’s final contribution to the nation.

River’s boss, Dave Baker, enthusiastically embraced the project. “When you go back to Idarado’s original plan as manifested in the RAP, one key piece was to preserve the historic integrity of the area,” he said. “We thought this would be a lasting legacy to the mines and miners of the San Juans.”

Once the ball got rolling, things came together pretty fast. Idarado kept back only 600 acres of patented claims that were key to ongoing remediation, and sold the rest – about 5,500 acres – to the Trust for Public Land. TPL in turn sold the land to the U.S. Forest Service, which paid for the acquisition with a series of appropriations from the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Idarado also released an additional 4,000 acres of unpatented claims back to the USFS, All of this land was conserved and returned to public use, spelling out the final chapter in Idarado’s story.

Simply put, River said, it went like this: “We bought the land, we mined it, we reclaimed it and we sold it back to public lands.”

All Aboard

Colorado’s all-Republican U.S. congressional delegation did the heavy lifting in Congress to appropriate the funds. In the beginning, the key players were Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and Rep. Scott McGinnis. Later on, Sen. Wayne Allard also played an essential role.

Risch recalls that it was not an easy sell at first. Both Campbell and McInnis had reputations as conservatives on public lands issues. “We were not people that would automatically sign on to anything,” McInnis acknowledged.

The Task Force fanned the flames of their enthusiasm with a grassroots letter-writing campaign. Even Silverton’s schoolchildren rallied to the cause, sending off a flurry of hand-written letters to Washington, D.C. at one critical juncture. “Between Ouray and Silverton and everyone else who was involved, they got swamped,” Risch chuckled. “And the lawmakers said, ‘Okay, we’ve got the message.’”

Campbell, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was well-placed to advance the cause. As it turns out, the pony-tailed, Harley-riding senator from Ignacio had a special connection to Idarado and Red Mountain Pass. “Years ago, my wife’s uncle was the superintendent at the Idarado Mine, when she was a youngster growing up in Montrose,” he explained. “And so sometimes in the summers, she would stay up there at the mine.”

Rep. Scott McInnis of Grand Junction had a soft spot in his heart for the Red Mountain area too, and soon championed the project.  “It was the history of it that kind of drove me,” he said. “The land was beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but we have a lot of beautiful land in this state. Just seeing those structures, your imagination goes wild.”

Ouray District Ranger Tim Sutton, the Forest Service lead on the Red Mountain Project, also played a critical role in the project’s eventual success. Among many other things, he agitated to get the Red Mountain Mining District on the USFS “Most Endangered” list, thus boosting the project’s chances of qualifying for federal money. His efforts paid off; by May 2001, the USFS had named the Red Mountain Mining District its No. 1 preservation priority in the country.

Congress ended up appropriated a whopping $14 million for the Red Mountain Project from the LWCF in several phases over seven years. With these funds, 9,000 acres of historic mining lands in the heart of the San Juan Mountains were transferred to the Uncompahgre National Forest (including 5,500 acres of Idarado land). More recent acquisitions have bumped that number up to well over 10,000 acres.

In spite of some missing pieces in the historic Red Mountain Mining District, everyone involved in the Red Mountain Project was thrilled with the results.

“The key to the project was relentless local support,” Sutton said. "Without that, the project would never have happened. It was truly a team effort with city, county, and state folks playing a critical role along with TPL and the Forest Service. I am so proud of the people that made it happen, and kept with it, were persistent and kept the energy up. The project was fantastic.”

TPL points to the Red Mountain Project as one of its biggest preservation success stories.

“We were lucky, in having a relationship with Idarado, to be able to do something on a grand scale like this,” said TPL’s Hillary Merritt, who came in on the tail end of the Red Mountain Project after Eric Love had moved on. “You look at those old mining claim maps, and you’ve got all of these little 10-acre slivers of mining claims up there. It’s really gratifying to be able to take all of those claims back into public ownership. The forest pieces itself back together.”

Risch’s favorite part of the whole project was Ironton Park, which was on the brink of development when its owners agreed to let TPL buy the land instead.

“Every time I drive up there past Crystal Lake and see people out there fishing, or taking pictures and so forth, I think ‘Thank god we got this,’” he said. “There used to be fences all the way up that highway on both sides. One of the happiest days of my life was when we took all that fencing down.”

The Mists of Time

Dawn. Late August. Guston Townsite, Red Mountain #3.

All around, the strange, angular shapes of mining ruins emerge from darkness on this raw escarpment. A dirt road switchbacks steeply up through yellow tailings and waste rock piles. Their sour mineral smell stains the frosty air.

Fall is coming. The Million Dollar Highway across the valley will soon fill up with its annual parade of leaf-peepers, come to drink in this spectacle of mining ruins set against a backdrop of yellow aspens, red mountains, blue sky.

A lone white pickup truck is parked at the edge of Idarado’s grassy-green, reclaimed Red Mountain Tailings Pile #2, below what’s left of the Idarado Mine. It’s Eric Schoenebaum, making his early morning rounds.

Sunlight suddenly spills into the mountain basins high above him. The shadows slide back to illuminate this portion of the vast treasure-trove of land that Idarado helped conserve as open space – an extravagance of crags, gullies and alpine tundra, tumbling across the horizon from Half-Moon Basin to Spirit Gulch and beyond.

There’s no telling, but if Fred Searls, Jr., Fred Wise and Johnny Wise were really standing over there across the valley at the scenic overlook, dwarfed by all that untamed beauty, perhaps they’d be okay with this ending to the story of the mine they made.

Meanwhile, over on the Telluride side of the mountains, a ghostly Bulkeley Wells would probably be pleased to see how well his hydroelectric power plant at Bridal Veil Falls has weathered the mists of time. How the massive, ancient Pelton wheel in the building’s guts can still spin water into power, and transform decades-old animosities into powerful new partnerships.


Next Week:

Like Water for Power

Building Bridges at Bridal Veil Falls


Idarado’s Lasting Community Impact

Through its participation in the Red Mountain Project, Idarado preserved 5,500 acres as public open space.  But Idarado has also enriched the communities of Telluride and Ouray in many other ways. Take a peek:

Ouray Community Center – When the City of Ouray was raising funds to build an emergency services center adjacent to the Ouray City Hall in the early ‘80s, Idarado agreed to use the proposed structure as headquarters for the San Juan Mine Rescue Co-op it had recently founded. That enabled the City to get an Energy/Mineral Impact Assistance Fund Grant to fund construction of the building. A second floor of the building rose to house the Ouray Community Center that exists today.

River Restoration – Part of the 1992 Consent Decree between the State of Colorado and Idarado involved establishing a $1.1 million Natural Resource Damage fund, making money available for projects that attempted to repair or replace resources that may have been damaged by mining. The City of Ouray and Town of Telluride tapped this fund to rehabilitate disturbed stretches of the Uncompahgre River and San Miguel River and enhance aquatic and wildlife habitat.

Access to Medical Care – Back when Idarado was an active mine, it took on the responsibility of making sure its employees, and the communities of Telluride and Ouray, had access to adequate medical care. Though the mine has been shut down now for 40 years, Idarado still owns clinic buildings in both Telluride and Ouray and leases them to the communities at a reduced rate.

Idarado Legacy Project – For years after its closure, Idarado worked with the Town of Telluride to transfer a 410-acre parcel of its property near Pandora into town limits. The development planned for the area included 80-100 affordable housing units as well as some higher-end lots. However, in 2001, Telluride residents voted against annexation, and Idarado ended up working with San Miguel County to subdivide the property into 35-acre parcels instead. Today, the attractive high-end neighborhood features an interpretive “Idarado Legacy Trail” winding all the way from Telluride to Pandora that has become a favorite place for locals to get out for a quick walk or run.

Lawson Hill – The affordable, deed-restricted neighborhood west of Telluride owes its origins to Idarado. As retired Idarado general manager Rick River recounts, Idarado had to evict residents of a trailer park near Pandora to create a staging area for manure, hay and heavy equipment during the remediation. “But we gave San Miguel County a quarter million dollars to start a revolving loan fund for affordable housing on Lawson Hill, and that’s how Lawson Hill got started,” River said.

Recreational Access – Idarado’s property around Telluride includes Bridal Veil Falls – the longest free-falling waterfall in Colorado. In the winter, this waterfall turns into a tantalizing 365-foot-long ribbon of ice. For years Idarado fought a losing battle to keep climbers off the ice. But today, thanks to an ice climbing license negotiated between the Trust for Public Land and Idarado, which San Miguel County now holds, climbing is permitted on the falls. Idarado has also worked with local cross-country ski enthusiasts to allow the development of Nordic ski trails near its tailings piles in Telluride and Ironton Park.

Kentucky Placer – Telluridians enjoy access to a 117-acre tract of land called the Kentucky Placer that was part of the final phase of the Idarado Legacy Project. This narrow but critical piece of previously unprotected property between the Town of Telluride and its glorious back country runs from Bear Creek Preserve to the famed Bridal Veil Falls along the south side of the valley. A small portion of this land is best known to thousands as the site of the annual Telluride Bluegrass Festival. The Trust for Public Land acquired the property from Idarado in 2004, and sold it to the Town of Telluride and San Miguel County in 2008, with the majority being preserved as open space.