Conservation from the sky

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Conservation from the sky

Date: 06/21/2023     Category: News & Media     Author: Bella Biondini     Publication: Gunnison Country Times    

Original Post ➡️

EcoFlight traces boundary lines of Thompson Divide mineral withdrawal proposal

Julie Nania and Kestrel Kunz look out of the window of the plane. (Photo by Bella Biondini)

As the small plane left the runway, the Gunnison Valley gave way into a mosaic of wet meadows and brilliant green patches of aspen that had finally given in to the arrival of summer. Northward, the high peaks surrounding Crested Butte were still coated in white, holding on tightly to a healthy winter’s snowpack.

The plane’s path, which was illuminated by a blue dot on an ipad, slowly traced the boundary line of the proposed Thompson Divide mineral withdrawal — roughly 225,000 acres straddling pieces of Gunnison, Garfield and Pitkin counties. Within the proposal, designed to protect the mostly untouched lands from new mining interests, is also Crested Butte’s Mount Emmons. The peak, known to locals as Red Lady, is the location of a 50-year long fight to ensure the landscape is not mined in the future. 

The flight passed over the silvery thread of the Crystal River as well, which bulged fat with snowmelt. A section of the river, which flows through the towns of Marble and Redstone, is eligible for designation under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, one of the strongest forms of federal protection for free-flowing rivers. 

But all of these boundaries faded when seen from the sky. In its place, were just the natural lines cut by rivers and jagged mountain ranges below. The passengers crowded around the plane’s tiny windows, peering in wonder at the landscape.

Along with the pilot, on board were two local mayors, a river advocate, a conservationist and a journalist. EcoFlight Executive Director Jane Pargiter said her goal is to get a diverse mix of passengers on each flight. The Aspen-based nonprofit’s mission is to advocate for the environments it flies over. Although only five can fit inside the small plane, taking people into the air can help them visualize the public lands and natural resources they are often working to protect — and allow them to bring what they’ve learned from above back to their communities on the ground.  

“A lot of the areas in the West are so rugged you just can’t see them properly on the ground, or in their entirety,” Pargiter said. “You don’t realize the continuity of a landscape, river or ecosystem, and how the biodiversity of that area might be affected without seeing it as a whole.” 

The plane slowly passed over the Ohio Creek Valley and the adjacent Three Peaks Ranch, nestled right underneath Ohio Peak. The surrounding lands, which are currently under private ownership, will soon be open to the public. 

Crested Butte Mayor Ian Billick holds a map of the route.(Photo by Bella Biondini)

The push to save Mt. Emmons has resulted in ongoing negotiations for a land exchange between the U.S. Forest Service and the Mt. Emmons Mining Company. The exchange includes the Three Peaks Ranch, rich wetlands and wildlife habitat. Local leaders hope the exchange, paired with conservation easements, will be finalized this fall. This will be accompanied by a mineral extinguishment agreement for the molybdenum deposit on Red Lady. 

Many within Gunnison Valley community are also supporting the proposed Thompson Divide mineral withdrawal, which would prohibit new oil and gas leases, as well as new mining claims, on the lands surrounding Red Lad — including those that would have been used for the footprint of the mine. When finalized, the withdrawal would last for a 20-year period.  

But, for the Red Lady, local leaders are pushing for the permanent protection of a mountain that has stayed close to the hearts of those in the community. After decades of work to make it this far, Julie Nania, water program director at Crested Butte’s High Country Conservation Advocates, said the organization wants to be sure this is the end of the battle. 

Last month, Senators Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper reintroduced the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy (CORE) Act. If passed, it would create new wilderness areas, safeguard existing outdoor recreation opportunities and establish a permanent mineral withdrawal along the Thompson Divide — a key component of the CORE Act. 

Its reintroduction seemed to be the perfect time to raise local awareness about an act that would not only protect the Thompson Divide for future generations, but also Red Lady, Nania said. 

“These are intimately connected,” Nania said. “Also, they are our headwaters. That was something I personally loved about the flight. A big part of the reason for these protections is protecting water quality. When you fly that mountain landscape and see that snowpack it just hits home the point that any impacts up here flow downstream.” 

(Bella Biondini can be contacted at 970.641.1414 or 

The flight passed over the mountain ranges that separate Crested Butte and Aspen. Castle Peak looms in the background. (Photo by Bella Biondini)