Thinking Little

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Crested Butte, Colorado, is not much of a town, really —some twelve hundred residents, a few bars and restaurants, schools and gas stations, churches and grocery stores—just about what you would expect of a town situated at 8,885 feet in the East River Valley of the Rocky Mountains, close to Gunnison National Forest and a long way from the ills that plague most of industrialized America.

Or is it?

The town was founded in the 1880’s as one more of the frenetic little camps that pocketed the mountains during the glory years of gold and silver mining in Colorado. After the inevitable decline, those residents stayed behind took to digging coal, which remained Crested Butte’s basic industry for nearly seventy years. Then after World War II the coal ran out, and the town declined into a minor tourist attraction in the summer, and in the winter became one of the smaller meccas for those willing to risk a broken leg on a downhill ski run. Young people have moved in, renovating the old homes and buildings, retaining the town’s sedate qualities, creating a quiet place for quiet lives. But rising over Crested Butte like the fist of God is Mount Emmons. Mount Emmons is full of molybdenum, used as an alloy with steel and aluminum; it contains, in fact, the third largest known deposit of that metal in the world. And so, as Tom Huth writes in the March/April, 1979, issue of Historic Preservation , Crested Butte has suddenly become “a dramatic example of the crunch between national energy and mineral demands and fragile local environments.”

The molybdenum is there, and AMAX, Inc., a multinational mining company, wants to dig it out; to do so will require two thousand construction workers, fourteen hundred miners, access roads, millworks, and a tailings dump: industry. It is here that the crunch comes, for the citizens of Crested Butte remember all too well what happened in the mid-1970’s to Rock Springs, Wyoming, another small high-country town, when the Jim Bridger Power Plant was built and put into operation. Population jumped from twelve thousand to more than twenty-six thousand; crime increased exponentially and I alcoholism became a major problem; services fell far behind demand; the town found itself surrounded by a sea of trailers and camper-trucks, and the director of the Chamber of Commerce was driven to cry, “We’re just plain I going crazy.…” With that precedent in mind, Crested Butte’s mayor voiced similar concern: ”… if we follow the lead of … Rock Springs we would have none of the values we cherish in just a few years.”

Many of the town’s citizens —the mayor included —would like to stop the project altogether; that seems unlikely, since the town has no legal say in the matter and the federal, state, and county authorities who do are in favor of it. Yet AMAX has so far displayed a corporate sensitivity as rape in these climes as Spanish moss, and is negotiating cautiously with Crested Butte in an effort to avoid creating another Rock Springs, and with the hope that what comes out of it all will be a model for the future

Will it work? No one will know until at least 1986, when mining is scheduled to begin, but it is clearly an opportunity to ameliorate some of the worst aspects of progress in a region never designed for it. “A town is saved,” Henry David Thoreau once wrote, “not more by the righteous men in it than by the woods and swamps that surround it.” That may he, but in Crested Butte, Colorado, righteous men have a job of work to do.