Forest Service, miner trade digs
White River requests more info on Avalanche Creek operation
The U.S. Forest Service and a small, independent miner traded jabs Friday over who is to blame for delaying his ability to pull marble and alabaster from underneath a flank of Mount Sopris.
Robert Congdon claimed Forest Service officials are erecting unnecessary bureaucratic hurdles to his mining operation a quarter mile up Avalanche Creek from Highway 133.
Congdon was asked to submit information about his proposed operations in mid-July. He claimed the federal agency was required by law to respond within 30 days. Instead, White River National Forest supervisor Maribeth Gustafson and her staff requested more information.
The bureaucratic quagmire effectively kills his proposal to start year-round production of marble, he said. Congdon claimed full-time operations are needed to secure financing and achieve business efficiencies like hiring a properly trained crew that can count on regular employment.
Congdon, a former coal miner for Mid-Continent Resources, discovered alabaster and marble up Avalanche Creek in 1991. He battled Pitkin County for years for the right to mine before settling a lawsuit out of court.
The Forest Service authorized his operation plan in 1995, authorized year-round work in 2003, but now contends a more thorough review of his plan is necessary.
“It looks to me like it’s headed to a lawsuit,” said Congdon. “I don’t any other option.”
Cindy Dean, a realty specialist with the Forest Service, said the agency simply needs to do a thorough review, as it is required by law. She said the process hasn’t progressed like Congdon would prefer.
The operations plan authorized in 1995 didn’t contemplate year-round production of marble, she said. Gustafson is new to the forest and wants to understand the full scope of Congdon’s mining operation, so she requested additional information.
“He’s unwilling to do that, so we’re kind of at a stalemate,” Dean said.
Before year-round work can be authorized, the Forest Service will be required to conduct a study under the National Environmental Protection Act. A 1995 study didn’t look at year-round work, Dean said. The year-round work approved for 2003 was a “trial basis” only.
Congdon said he finds it odd that the Forest Service is requiring all this information for his small mining operation when it acts much more quickly on natural gas drilling permits in its Rifle District. The natural gas boom in western Colorado has spilled into the White River National Forest. The agency expects up to 30 wells to be drilled in the forest this year.
Congdon said it appears the Forest Service “goes after the small guy” and kowtows to the large corporations.
“They know I don’t have a team of lawyers to go in and defend myself,” he said.
Also affected by the fight is artist Jeremy Russell, who is carving an eagle out of alabaster in the mine as a memorial to military veterans. He’s worked on the eagle, which is taking shape with a 50-foot wingspan, off and on for five years. The Forest Service has ordered him to stop work on the memorial because it isn’t an authorized use of the mine.
“I really feel there’s some kind prejudice against Bob and myself,” Russell said.
Russell has gone on a petition drive to show the Forest Service the support for his project. So far about 2,000 signatures have been collected. Russell said Forest Service officials seem unfazed by the show of support.
While the Forest Service maintains that Congdon must submit additional information for additional review, he and Russell contend Congdon has repeatedly supplied everything the Forest Service requires.
“The funny thing is every time we submit something, they want something more,” Russell said.
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