Rare Earths Key to Wilderness Opposition
by Peter Shelton
Feb 03, 2011 | 2191 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Commissioner Mike Fedel Votes No

OURAY – Ouray County citizens packed the commissioners’ room at the Courthouse on Tuesday to try to convince newly elected Commissioner Mike Fedel to support the White House extension of the Mount Sneffels Wilderness. But Fedel was unmoved and cast the lone dissenting vote against two in favor of continuing the county’s support. Commissioners Lynn Padgett and Heidi Albritton voted in favor.

“I just can’t support this,” Fedel said of the resolution the BOCC will send to Representative Scott Tipton. “I’ll listen. I’ll talk to anybody anytime.” But, he said, he wouldn’t make the resolution unanimous.

In 2007 the commissioners unanimously passed a resolution expressing support for the San Juan Mountains Wilderness Act, which proposed creating or adding to wilderness areas in Ouray, San Miguel and San Juan counties. That bill, sponsored in the House by John Salazar and in the Senate by Mark Udall, failed to pass the 111th Congress, due, Padgett said, to timing issues rather than any concerted opposition. Wilderness supporters want to encourage Tipton, who replaced Salazar, to take up the cause in the new Congress.

Two of Ouray’s three commissioners considered it important to reinforce their 2007 resolution, as the boards of the other two counties have done, but Fedel did not agree. Early in the discussion, before any comments from the public, Fedel read a prepared statement.

In it he said that he had met with wilderness proponents Sheelagh and Scott Williams, and Jeff Widen of the Wilderness Society, and appreciated their help in understanding the issues. He said that he understood that the proposal evolved from a local grassroots effort, that it accommodated existing grazing and water rights, and existing private land and mining claims. But, he said, “The only thing missing from the proposal was the ability to allow for natural resource development.”

He mentioned two unexploited resources: creating micro-hydroelectric projects on high-country streams, and mining for so-called rare earth minerals. Wilderness designation “would eliminate the possibility of developing these forever,” he said.

Rare earths are the minerals essential to many high-tech innovations, including the batteries in hybrid cars, the color red on your TV screen and the laser capability in fiber-optic cables. China has a near-monopoly on the export of rare earths currently, but new sources are being discovered in the U.S., Canada, Australia and elsewhere. No one knows if rare earths exist in the San Juans in economically viable concentrations.

Fedel, who worked for a time as an assayer at the now-defunct Camp Bird gold mine, said in his statement that he is “very uncomfortable relying on a single industry – tourism” for Ouray County’s economic health. “Although I cannot support a new resolution, I will remain a vigilant defender of public lands. I love these mountains,” he said in conclusion.

Public comments were almost universally in support of extending the wilderness. Tim Patterson, representing the Ridgway Town Council, reiterated his body’s appreciation for the protection provided in the proposal for Beaver Creek, Ridgway’s sole source of potable water. Steve Wolff of Log Hill praised the roadless nature of wilderness for hunters who, like him, seek to get away from ATVs and motorized hunting. Lyn Meinert represented the Ouray Trails Group, who wanted to see continued support for the extension.

Sheelagh Williams addressed Fedel’s points directly. “Wilderness designation is in fact an act of Congress,” she said. “In the event that something was found [on the north slope of the Sneffels Range] that would save the world, Congress could allow it to be mined. I wish it would lock it up forever. But I respectfully disagree.”

Ridgway’s Joe Ryan, whose San Juan Hut System runs parallel to the wilderness boundary, said that he too had been a miner, “for eight years in a past life,” and that in all his years scrambling over the north slope of the Sneffels Range he had come across only “three holes. Those [prospectors] crawled all over the area trying to find ore bodies. They found them on the inside of the caldera, the inside of the ancient volcano, where the Camp Bird is. I support mining. Using the existing infrastructure, existing tunnels on the south side of the range.”

Fedel admitted that he doesn’t know what the potential for future mining is. “It’s the unknown,” he said. “I’m afraid we’re going to lock everything up.”

Commission Chair Heidi Albritton allowed that Lynn Padgett “has been trying to get studies done on whether these rare earth minerals exist in our mountains. We don’t know.”

She went on, “I like the fact that this bill is customized for this area. This has been a model process. The ranchers, water interests, private landowners all have been part of the process. This is not a top-down change. In fact, the Forest Service Travel Plan doesn’t allow motorized use in these areas now. Wilderness designation would just extend the historic use.”

Joe Ryan had a question: “If a tunnel from the south, say, follows a vein underneath the surface boundary of the wilderness, can you do that?”

To which Fedel replied, “I couldn’t find an answer to that.”

Longtime Ourayite Francie Tisdel spoke in favor of official wilderness designation. “If they [rare earths] are found here, there will be ways to get at them. It’s the great American will: where there’s a will there’s a way.”

Following public comment, the commissioners spoke up. Padgett said that as a geologist, she knows that rare earth minerals are actually not all that rare. (China can claim only about 30 percent of the world’s reserves.) And even if they were rare, “they are not the only things that are rare. Things that are truly very rare include the alpine tundra on the Sneffels north slope. And the water-filtering ecosystems up there.

“We do have an energy crisis,” she continued, “but to hold up micro-hydro in that high country as an argument against this wilderness proposal is a false argument. You’d get 3cfs here, 10cfs there. They’d freeze in the winter, thaw in the summer. Freeze-thaw, freeze-thaw. You’d have to build powerlines and roads to the sites.” (More than one comment from the audience mentioned the far greater impact of hydro-generation soon to come on-line at the Ridgway Reservoir dam.)

Finally, she said, “Mining has always been boom-and-bust. Tourism has sustained us and will continue to sustain us.” And, “If not now [for this legislation], when? If not this proposal, which one? If this process, with all our stakeholder inclusion to the benefit of all, cannot be supported, then we might as well give up.”

She proposed resubmitting the 2007 resolution with four additional “whereases”: one that would enumerate the acreages involved; one that would recognize the support of local governments; one referencing the fact that the 2010 San Juans wilderness bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee unanimously; and one that extolled the “model process” involved in the Act’s creation.

Albritton seconded the motion. Fedel, in his no vote, said, “I just can’t support this. The one constituency not consulted was the mining community. That’s not your fault. As you said, the mining community comes and goes.”

Albritton admitted it was uncomfortable not have reached consensus. “We don’t like to force a vote when we know we’re not going to have a unanimous vote.” In fact, according the Lyn Meinert, this was only the second split decision by the BOCC in the last two years.
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