SILVERTHORNE — City Market grocery worker Oumar Ba breathed deep in Colorado’s Blue River Valley between wilderness mountains, remembering the beauty of his native Senegal.
“I love the river,” said Ba, 30.
But he also sees benefits of a proposal by Peak Materials to dig a new, 54-acre gravel mine along the river to support construction of roads, buildings and more resort luxury houses in Summit County. “Creates more jobs,” he said.
His mixed feelings about this gravel mine reflect a dilemma that state leaders were navigating in hearings this week: boosting commerce in Summit County versus saving the nature that remains amid Colorado’s growth and development boom. For two decades, this valley has been a focus for state-backed conservation led by landowners who invested millions in protective easements and restoring habitat for wildlife and fish.
But officials with the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety have recommended approval for the gravel mine. The state’s mining board is expected to vote Thursday on whether to grant a required state permit — a key step.
This new gravel mine along the Blue River, 10 miles north of Silverthorne on a former ranch that includes delicate wetlands, would add to the 1,163 gravel mines currently permitted around Colorado. These provide 54 million tons a year of sand and gravel used for asphalt, concrete, road base and building site fill material.
The amount of rock blasted out of quarries and scraped out of river valleys statewide has been increasing, up from 51 million tons in 2016, according to the Colorado Stone, Sand and Gravel Association, in line with increased gravel mining of 970 million tons a year for developers nationwide.
Landowners including a 600-member group led by nature photographer John Fielder are fighting the project, warning of harm to underground water flows, soil, domestic wells, elk migration and other impacts including noise, light, and truck traffic. More than 150 filed formal objections and, over two days of hearings this week, experts testified bolstering their claims.
“This is the most beautiful mountain valley with the best access to wilderness of any valley in Colorado – why I moved here. It is the worst possible place to put a gravel mine,” Fielder, 70, a Colorado resident since 1972, told The Denver Post. “Development is never going to stop. So what do you do? At least, you do it in the right place. You don’t put a gravel mine in a protected mountain valley.”
Opposition to gravel mining
State natural resources officials, declining Post requests to discuss the issue, emphasized through a spokesman that Colorado law gives them no authority to determine the location of gravel mines. The officials contend they’re limited to technical evaluation of Peak Materials’ proposal, which includes plans for minimizing long-term harm to water, wildlife and people, and posting a $364,465 financial warranty for reclamation after 2036.
Gravel mining in Colorado increasingly faces opposition. Deciding on permits for proposed gravel pits and managing impacts, state officials said, makes up 89% of mining regulators’ workload.
In 2018, state board members rejected a proposed quarry south of Colorado Springs, a city where long-promised reclamation of scars on mountains from gravel mining hasn’t been done. They voted it down despite a staff recommendation they approve it, citing water concerns and “the context of what we are doing.”
Denver attorney Harris Sherman, who ran Colorado’s natural resources department under two governors and served in the Obama administration as undersecretary of natural resources and the environment in the U.S. Department of Agriculture, coordinated the opposition in that case and is representing landowners again.
Much of the gravel in the Rocky Mountain region lies buried along streams and rivers, because that’s where natural processes deposit small rocks. Yet waterways increasingly are seen as precious — as habitat for wildlife, open space for recreation and watersheds for growing western cities in the Colorado River Basin as climate warming drives a shift to aridity.
Mining gravel requires scraping off vegetation, removing topsoil, then digging or dredging to extract raw material. Diesel trucks then load and haul the material to processing facilities.
In this case, Peak Materials officials agreed to a 300-foot buffer between mining and the river’s main channel. Peak Materials would haul gravel seven miles — an estimated 230 truck trips a day — to the company’s existing Maryland Creek Ranch facility for crushing and washing before construction crews carry it to sites.
State mining officials’ recommended approval includes a condition — that Summit County officials grant Peak Materials a new or extended permit to keep using that Maryland Creek facility. Located next to a nearly-depleted gravel pit mine, it must close before 2026 under an existing county permit that also precludes importing gravel from elsewhere.
Summit County authorities didn’t respond to Post queries. The county’s master plan for the Blue River Valley prioritizes preservation consistent with historical grazing of cattle.
Gravel mining would require 160 acre-feet of water a year and removal of rock down 49 feet, first by digging and later by dredging, until at least 2031 and as late as 2036. Then, company officials testified this week, they’d leave a 26-acre “lake” surrounded by vegetated berms suitable for wildlife.
“It is important to provide your local community with locally-sourced aggregates if possible,” said Joanna Hopkins, community relations manager for Peak Materials, which has supplied gravel in Summit County since 1965, including material used to build the Dillon Dam and Eisenhower Tunnel. “Otherwise, you’re bringing them in from outside the area with a higher financial cost and a higher cost to the environment due to truck emissions.”
“Water is everything”
Environment advocates contend climate warming means Colorado must strategically protect mountain valleys nourished by streams and rivers.
“Growth requires gravel. But our rivers are threatened,” Colorado Headwaters president Jerry Mallet said. “And water is everything.”
While landowners pointed to otters, elk, bears, deer, falcons, eagles, owls and other wildlife living near the proposed mine in the river corridor, some workers noted an intensifying economic pinch that compels them to think more about making ends meet than saving nature.
“The problem here is that houses are too expensive, and people who live and work here are getting pushed out,” said Corey Lewis, 32, a fishing guide along the Blue River who supported the new gravel mine.
Real estate agent Kelsey Withrow, 36, born in Summit County, concluded “the reality is, we need gravel,” she said, looking over a construction site where 70% of the large airy structures would be second homes. However, in the future, Withrow said, “there definitely has to be a cap on development.”
Locally grown food, local wood from beetle-killed trees, and local sand and gravel for construction is an appealing concept, said Erin Young, 34, owner of the Red Buffalo café along the river, who has lived in the county for 25 years and enjoys cycling.
“But big trucks on the road don’t improve your bike ride, and the river valley at the proposed mine site gives some of the best unobstructed views of the Gore Range mountains,” Young said. “We’re very fatigued with so much over-development up here. I mean, the average resident here makes less than $100,000 a year and doesn’t really benefit from this sort of new development.”
Waiting for a bus, Andrew McGarrie, 31, said he sees both sides but ultimately opposes a new gravel mine. “Conserving nature is what people want to do,” he said.
Peak Materials is listed as a division of Kilgore Companies, a subsidiary of Denver-based Summit Materials, a corporation with annual revenues topping $2 billion. Peak bought the 76-acre ranch north of Silverthorne in 2018 to use it for mining.
Two decades of efforts to revitalize Blue River fish habitat have benefited in recent years from Denver Water commitments to ensure sufficient flows out of the Lake Dillon reservoir. The Colorado Water Conservation Board has supported use of water for environmental purposes.
Landowners placed conservation easements on their properties to forego development on thousands of acres, in addition to 9,643 acres of county-protected open space along the river. The Blue River Valley links the 133,496-acre public Eagles Nest Wilderness and the 12,750-acre Ptarmigan Peak Wilderness — public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
“We are aware of the restoration efforts along the Lower Blue River and worked with the operator in their permit application to create a 300-foot buffer between the mining activities and the river,” state natural resources agency spokesman Chris Arend said.
The state’s mining division “is driven by Colorado statute and regulations,” Arend said. And the division “does not consider issues under the purview of county governments such as health, transportation impacts or other values.”
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