MONTROSE – The pending endangered species listing of the Gunnison sage grouse forced the Montrose County Commissioners on Monday to delay a decision on whether or not to approve a special use permit for a large gravel mine proposed for the top of Moonlight Mesa just south of Montrose.
At a lengthy public hearing held at Friendship Hall Monday afternoon, the commissioners unanimously decided to continue the special use permit hearing on the proposed gravel mine to Oct. 7 – one week after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to render a decision on whether the Gunnison sage grouse will be listed as an endangered species.
Rocky Mountain Aggregate and Construction, LLC, is proposing to build and operate a gravel pit, along with asphalt and concrete operations, on land zoned general agricultural nine miles south of Montrose and approximately one mile west of Hwy. 550 at the end of Montrose County’s T Road.
The 250 acres land on top of the mesa, which Rocky Mountain Aggregate is leasing for the mining operation, was included in the 1.7 million acres of land that could be designated critical Gunnison sage grouse habitat if the species is listed as endangered. Because of the uncertainty of that designation and because they signed a memorandum of understanding with ten other counties in western Colorado and eastern Utah pledging to do everything possible to increase the bird’s population numbers, the commissioners on Monday said they couldn’t make a decision on the proposed mine until they hear the fate of the sage grouse’s listing.
“It’s unfortunate we have to do it this way,” Commissioner Ron Henderson said just before the vote to continue the hearing.
“This whole issue about the sage grouse, we all agree we wish it wasn’t here,” Commissioner Gary Ellis said. “It doesn’t matter what we think here in this county. This is not in our hands it’s in the federal government’s hands. We don’t know what is going to happen so we can’t blow this off and ignore it…. I am telling you this is a consideration that we can’t take lightly.”
Throughout Monday’s hearing, which lasted nearly four hours, engineer/reclamation specialist Greg Lewiski, who was representing Rocky Mountain Aggregate, said numerous times that despite what Fish and Wildlife believes, the land is not good habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse and that previous owners of the land have never once spotted a bird on the land. With very dry conditions, roads and an active shooting range atop the mesa, Lewiski said it’s simply a place that contains no Gunnison sage grouse and that he has reports from area biologists to back up the claim.
“The site has numerous two-track roads that almost cover the entire area,” Lewiski said. “There is a target practice platform and shell casings all over the place. As sensitive as those birds are, that can’t be good for the birds. It’s not good habitat.”
On Tuesday, Rocky Mountain Aggregate co-owner Zane Luttrell said he was frustrated with the decision but plans to continue to move the project forward.
“We were very disappointed that the commissioners continued the meeting until after the feds make a decision regarding the sage grouse,” Luttrell said. “There is really no guarantee any decision will be made then. In regards to the future, we are going to keep pushing forward with project. We fell like we have a good package to offer and that it will benefit the community.”
The gravel pit mining plan proposes to produce anywhere from 100,000-200,000 tons of gravel a year over the next 105 years. Over the course of that lifespan, the proposed gravel mining will occur in five stages. Stages 1-4 will create a pit 25-35 below the current terrace creating a berm and natural visual impact shield around the gravel pit. Stage 5 will take an estimated four years, during which time the berm will be mined and the terrace elevation will be lowered to the bottom pit level. The applicant is also proposing to operate both an asphalt and concrete batch plant in the pit during certain periods of time each year.
While most of the commissioners’ discussion surrounded the Gunnison sage grouse and its pending endangered species listing, the public hearing elicited an afternoon full of public comments. Of those who spoke during the public comment portion of the hearing 19 spoke out against the gravel pit while six spoke in favor of it. One resident simply told the commissioners to vote with their conscience and with common sense.
Of those who spoke out against the mill, a variety of concerns were aired, including concerns related to dust and noise, truck traffic, asphalt smells and, for those living nearby, a possible decline in property values.
Former Montrose County Commissioner Allan Belt said the magnitude and size of the project was “shocking” and that he would like to hear from the Colorado Department of Transportation about how it will work with the influx of truck traffic coming onto Hwy. 550 at T Road.
“I am concerned with the traffic on the highway and maybe that can be mitigated,” Belt said. “It’s a fact of life I am afraid, after seeing it for so many years, that gravel pits just don’t make good neighbors…. I think a great deal of this community but how long are we going to be allowing us to build gravel pits to supply the other counties who won't allow uses like this?”
For resident Hank Williams, the application for the gravel pit is a perfect application.
“What a great application,” Williams said. “I do feel for the NIMBY crowd but I don’t think I have ever seen an opportunity for a mine to mine gravel in southwest Colorado that is as loaded with natural resources. It is our duty to mine this stuff. I can’t believe the sage grouse continues to be brought up in these situations. They are not listed. I am tired of hearing about the Gunnison sage grouse.”
The public hearing is expected to resume as part of the commissioners’ regular meeting scheduled for Oct. 7.