Mining is our past but not our future

Posted: Thursday, October 4, 2018 2:53 pm

by Skip Kunst Special to The Flume

The mid-to-late 1800s saw a migration of people searching for wealth heading to the Mountain West. The gleam of gold, silver and other minerals was just too hard to resist. According to a diorama at Eleven Mile State Park:

“Gold was discovered in the streams of South Park in 1859. By 1860, 11,000 people were living in the shanty towns and mining camps that sprang up. Within a decade, the grizzly and wolf were hunted to extinction. Streams were virtually sterilized by dredges and hydraulic hoses. Mountainsides were stripped of trees. Herds of deer, elk and antelope were decimated.”


I personally have trouble being proud of our mining forefathers, not only knowing those facts, but as I hike around the high country. Seeing the ruins of mining is, I admit, sometimes fascinating but nonetheless still an eyesore to the beauty of Colorado. History is history, it’s the past. New generations serve themselves well when they learn from the past.


Mining’s heyday in Park County lasted only about 20 years, and while some serious mining persisted, its economic viability in the area ended with the removal of the dredge south of Fairplay in the 60s. What replaced mining? The beauty and solitude of the mountains did. People in the Front Range and other parts of the country began to notice Park County. It was close enough, with lots of wild game and fish, cooler temperatures in the summer and plenty of places to camp and explore.


Front Range water needs caused the development of more recreational opportunities with the building of reservoirs. Inexpensive land added to the list of Park County’s attributes, and all of a sudden people started deciding they wanted to either live in these old mining towns or have a getaway second home. Over the next 50 years, subdivisions sprang up everywhere, even right next to mining claims. Many of the claims seemed forgotten, trees sprang up in the midst of the rubble, zoning laws became more refined and seemed to protect those investing in homes near mining.


In Fairplay, becoming a residential community became important, and free enterprise began to provide all the amenities the people needed. In the last 15 years, Fairplay has come to enjoy a new school, modern businesses like a supermarket and a major hardware store, many quality restaurants, an equipped recreation center and a rejuvenated historic business district on Front Street. Without income from elsewhere, Fairplay, a town of 700, would be lucky to have one sandwich shop and a gas station. It’s important to pay attention to who pays the bills.


Many towns in the West recognized that the new income base derived from tourists and potential second home owners was impeded by the visual impact of mining’s remnants. Modern equipment leveled gravel piles, restored original stream beds and planted trees. Due to the ineffectiveness of the Colorado Division of Reclamation and Mining at reclamation, some towns like Breckenridge had to actually buy land zoned for mining and reclaim it themselves. In spite of the public cost, the goal was clear: commemorate mining with museums, but do everything you can to reclaim the land destroyed by previous mining activity.


In Park County, personal incomes from mining has long been replaced by ranching and eventually tourism

and second-home building. Today, according to the census, only 1.8 percent of county employment comes from mining and oil and gas exploration. In spite of this fact, and the obvious residential nature of our towns, our county leadership, without the apparent support of research, has placed few limitations on mining in the county. In contrast, their contemporaries in other counties are regulating that industry based on the modern nature of their locales, usually protecting residential and tourism interests. In fact, in a recent discussion with a large aggregate company in Park County, I asked why they were willing to bear the cost to haul materials all the way to the Front Range. I asked “Is this because there is not quality or quantity of materials available to you closer, or this legislative?” The answer they gave me, legislative. This means that other locales are deciding to set stringent regulations regarding mining and the aggregate industry.


So what is Park County’s future? Do we want tourists to stop in our towns, spend some nights, buy things in our little shops, eat in our restaurants and view us as a base camp for all the things you can do here in the mountains? Do we assume that all this money that flows up U.S. Highway 285 or down Colorado Highway 9 will continue if the drive here is the opposite of scenic, as is now happening between Alma and Fairplay? Are we at all concerned about the safety of our beloved route to Denver, Highway 285, now that it is being congested with much more aggregate truck traffic? Or have we determined that we can replace the positive direction of the last 50 years and go against the grain of almost all former mining towns in the west, by embracing the industry that we were in the 1800s?


In the future, let’s make the right decisions for Park County.


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