Mining towns not all happy with this boom

Times Staff Writer

This tiny community nestled on the backside of Pike’s Peak revels in its mining heritage.

Tourists are invited to tour underground tunnels, gamble in the Gold Rush and Gold Diggers casinos or view a video at a museum entitled, “The Timeless Art of Gold Extraction.” They can shop for trinkets in the stores set up in Victorian houses built during Cripple Creek’s mining heyday.

The town is proud of the miners who, starting in the 1890s, dug 10,000 miles of tunnels through the hillsides and extracted $19 million worth of gold.


But when a mining company proposed strip mining the most prominent ridge in the area, Cripple Creek’s loyalty was tested.

“It’s a very strange position to be in,” Mayor Dan Baader said. “Our whole history for 150 years is mining. But look at it,” he said, waving his hand at the aspen-covered ridge visible from his kitchen window.

Cripple Creek’s dilemma is an increasingly common one in the West, which finds itself in the midst of its biggest mining boom in three decades. Driven by skyrocketing prices in metals, firms are reopening mines or digging in new terrain.

Since 2004, the number of claims filed on federal land has more than doubled. During that time, gold prices have risen from $400 to nearly $900 an ounce. Other minerals have climbed even faster -- copper and molybdenum, an alloy often mined in the Rocky Mountain region, have soared 600% in the last four years. Although no agency tracks mine activity nationwide, experts say the uptick has been remarkable.

“It’s China plus India. What you have is one-third of the world’s population that all of a sudden decided we want what the Western world has. . . . They’ve got this vociferous appetite for metals,” said Laura Skaer, executive director of the Northwest Mining Assn. in Spokane.

Some communities welcome the jobs and cash the boom brings. The mountain city of Leadville, Colo., for example, has cheered the reopening of the long-shuttered Climax mine.

In other areas that have turned to tourism to fuel their economies, the boom has sparked conflict. Environmental groups and towns in northern Arizona stopped one company from digging for uranium near the Grand Canyon. In the mining town turned tourist mecca of Crested Butte, Colo., residents fly Tibetan prayer flags to protest a company’s plan to mine a mountain basin that looms over downtown.

Last month, Cripple Creek officials reached a deal with the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co., which was planning to strip mine the ridge above town as part of a sizable expansion. The firm had agreed to reduce noise and traffic from the project, negotiate with the city for water and help expand the town recreation center.

Then in a surprise move, county commissioners banned the mining near Cripple Creek unless the company came up with a better way to shield the town from the scars of the project. They approved the vast majority of the expansion not near the town.

Spokeswoman Jane Mannon said the firm would submit a revised proposal in the coming months and that it was trying to minimize the impact of the mining on Cripple Creek. But she said it was inevitable that residents would see the mine.

“The surprising thing is the objection to mining being visible from Cripple Creek,” she said. “The history of this community is mining.”

In 1891, prospectors struck gold here, and the town abruptly became a major metropolitan center. It came close to being named the state capital. The mines made millionaires of more than 30 people, but gold prices eventually dropped and mining became less and less profitable.

By the mid-20th century, much of the city was struggling and only a handful of small mines remained open. Many were steadily bought out by the Cripple Creek & Victor Gold Mining Co., which began strip mining in the basins east of town. Its operation now covers 5,800 acres.

It wasn’t until gambling was legalized here in 1991 -- partly to make up for the loss of mining jobs -- that Cripple Creek was revived. Now, newcomers are less likely to be fortune hunters and more likely to be retirees like Carl and Nancy Poch.

They came from Illinois every summer for 32 years and decided to retire here in 2005. They lovingly restored a two-story Victorian just a few hundred yards from the eastern ridge that is scheduled to become an open pit mine.

The Pochs were jolted into activism after the mining company announced in February that rising gold prices made it economically feasible to mine to within 1,200 feet of town. Previously, the mine was hidden behind the aspen-covered ridge.

Opponents say they don’t see the contradiction of living in a place that touts its mining history while trying to halt a mine.

“All the mining before was tunnel mining,” said Paul Helit, 49, whose house at the eastern edge of town is downhill from the site. “It didn’t destroy the natural beauty.”--