Forest Service reverses decision on mine operation

A U.S. Forest Service official has reversed an agency decision governing future operation of an alabaster mine south of Carbondale, saying the decision failed to justify strict conditions designed to protect bighorn sheep.

Sherry Hazelhurst, acting supervisor of the Grand Mesa, Uncompahgre and Gunnison national forests, found that there wasn’t adequate documentation in the administrative record about the effects of mining on sheep to support a March 2 decision by Scott Snelson, Aspen-Sopris district ranger.

Snelson had agreed to let the mine resume operations for 20 years at the base of Mount Sopris and the mouth of the Avalanche Creek Valley, but with wintertime limitations on surface activities to protect the sheep, including a ban on such activities two months a year.

Elbram Stone Co., owner of the mine, also would have had to pay up to $52,500 a year for five years for a monitoring study of sheep in the area.

Hazelhurst considered the appeal by Walt Brown of Elbram Stone after White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams recused himself. The appeal decision will stand unless Regional Forester Daniel Jiron decides to review it.

Pitkin County, some nearby residents and environmental groups have been concerned about possible impacts from the mine, including on the sheep. Colorado Parks and Wildlife has documented declines in the animal’s numbers in the Avalanche Creek area, but Brown has said they have occurred during years when the mine was closed.

Brown had appealed Snelson’s decision based on a number of issues, such as noise and lighting mitigation requirements. But Hazelhurst based her finding primarily on issues involving the sheep. She wrote in her decision that an agency environmental assessment doesn’t adequately explain “the factors that led to the conclusion that mitigation measures related to the mine are necessary to protect bighorn sheep habitat.”

Nor is there any mention in the administrative record “about any broader Forest Service or cooperating government agency monitoring and study program prior to the mining proposal,” she wrote.

“There is also no correlation between the types of activities in the proposed Plan of Operations and the declining herd numbers over the past years. It is not the mining company’s financial responsibility to determine why numbers in the broader area have been dropping in past years prior to their proposed activities.”

Pitkin County had appealed Snelson’s decision as well, but contended that surface operations should be barred from December through April to protect sheep when they winter in the valley. Another Forest Service official previously denied that appeal, finding the effect on wintering sheep had been considered and the administrative record was adequate to support Snelson’s decision.


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