Mitigation Over Litigation: Crested Butte Works with the Ranching Community


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The president of Crested Butte Resort noticed that every time the ski area built something, there was a ripple in Gunnison Valley.

Edward Callaway looked down from the mountain and saw trouble. The president of Crested Butte Resort noticed that every time the ski area built something, there was a ripple in Gunnison Valley. It didn’t matter whether he put up a new chairlift or a new hotel, because the result was always the same-another ranch would vanish.

Sprouting up in place of green fields and grazing cows would be a 35-acre housing project and, in Callaway’s view, this was spoiling the pastoral landscape of Crested Butte. Suburban sprawl was knocking at the door.

“After a couple of years of this, it dawned on us that we were unwittingly a part of a development pattern that we didn’t want to see,” says Callaway. “Chopping up large ranches into homesites was starting to ruin what all of us had cherished for so long.”

The Callaways-Edward’s father, Bo, built the resort as a kind of antidote to civilization-are rock-ribbed individualists who have always supported the rights of private property owners. But the ranchers who turned their lands over to eager builders did so less out of desire than out of necessity, one that was triggered by the diminishing viability of running livestock. Ranches were good for tourism and for creating a greenbelt around the historic town of Crested Butte, but they often came under attack from environmentalists, who accused them of overgrazing and polluting rivers.

Not long ago there was plenty of finger-pointing around the valley, and almost everybody had a bone to pick with the resort. Prevailing opinion was that the ski area intended to keep growing at the expense of long-time residents, who feared that it would stimulate the construction of trophy homes, drive up the price of land and force people of average means to move elsewhere. Crested Butte was on the brink of becoming another trendy haven for the rich.

But Callaway wanted no part of that scenario. He and a handful of local business leaders, ranchers and environmentalists-strange bedfellows, to say the least-formed a nonprofit organization called the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy. Located in the town of Crested Butte, the Legacy worked to preserve ranches by purchasing development rights, placing those rights in permanent trust and leasing them back to their owners. In this way, the properties would forever remain open space while continuing to operate as ranches. In the past two years, ranchers have brought 7,000 acres into the Legacy, and others have made commitments to add another 40,000 acres. Grants from federal, state and local sources underwrite the annual acquisition budget of about $3 million.

The Legacy’s efforts are aimed at protecting the “drive-up” corridor between Gunnison and Crested Butte, to keep it from becoming a half-hour stretch of subdivisions. But much of what threatens Crested Butte lies in its own backyard. The biggest menace is a plan by the Cyprus-Amax Company to begin mining a rich molybdenum deposit (used for making steel) beneath Mt. Emmons, which looms above town. The mine would extract 10,000 tons of ore per day, double the town’s population for 10 years, shrink the mountain by up to two-thirds and send 300 trucks rumbling through the streets.

Though the mining industry created Crested Butte at the turn of the century-thanks to gold, silver and coal deposits-Callaway says this new project would “destroy everything that we have been working to preserve. What point would there be in creating a mountain oasis of open space if you are going to put a mine in the middle of it? That just doesn’t work.”

Last summer, the ski area supported efforts by the town of Crested Butte, Gunnison County and the High Country Citizens Alliance, a local conservation group, to challenge an application by Cyprus-Amax to obtain water rights. In September, the locals won a favorable ruling in Gunnison District Court that-for now-holds off mining because of insufficient water. But no one is betting that the mine is down for the count.

The resort hasn’t always found itself on the same side of development issues. For nearly a decade, environmentalists and civic leaders fought a proposed three-way land swap with the U.S. Forest Service and the Colorado State Land Board that would give Crested Butte Resort 420 acres of federal forest land next to its existing boundary-land that the ski area hoped to use for future skiing and real estate development. Callaway defended the proposal on grounds that it would concentrate growth in an area where development already existed.

Late last year, the impasse was broken and agreement was reached among all parties to let the historic exchange go forward. Under terms of the deal, the ski area bought 5,500 acres of private “inholdings” in Colorado’s national forests, then turned them over to the Forest Service. These included a section of land south of Mt. Crested Butte that contains a popular hiking and cycling trail called the Upper Loop. In addition, the resort purchased a 2,020-acre working cattle ranch southwest of Crested Butte and conveyed it to the State Land Board, which will collect revenues from it. Finally, the ski area got title to the land that is contiguous to its current holdings, enabling it to create a more cohesive expansion.

This summer, Callaway surprised the community again by disclosing preliminary plans for the resort’s buildout, including proposals for employee housing and a gondola connecting the historic district and the mountain village. Discussions on the master plan will continue for the next year or so, but it will be in the context of a comprehensive strategy for the entire area that will deal with traffic, open space and other “quality of life” issues.

Vicki Shaw, executive director of the High Country Citizens’ Alliance, notes that “as much as we have differences with the current owners of the ski resort, I am glad they are here. We have an open relationship with them. We all agree that Crested Butte has a special niche and can succeed quite well by being different from the others.”

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