Park County landowner aims to stir economic opportunity from polluted legacy
November 25, 2016
ALMA — Joe Harrington's strategy for cleaning up one of the heaviest polluting mines in Colorado includes tourism.
The owner of nearly 3,000 acres encompassing Park County's historic London mines is committed to cleaning up the zinc-laden water pouring from nearly 70 miles of tunnels beneath the Mosquito Range. The cost for that could reach tens of millions of dollars. To offset those mounting costs, the entrepreneur and inventor is breaking with tradition and looking at options beyond more mining, like developing recreational amenities on the site.
"We are trying to come up with economic ways beyond mining," said Harrington, his clothing slathered in bright orange sludge after a day in his mines. "It all adds up. Trail development here. Real estate development there. Water development there. My goal is to create a tax base and create opportunity and to demonstrate something about the future of mining. If we can demonstrate ways to solve mining's mess, and ways to fix it and ways to generate other revenue around these mining sites, we need to at least explore economic business around mines."
One avenue Harrington is pursuing is a backcountry lodge on the North London Mill site below Mosquito Pass on North Mosquito Creek. He's joined three other partners in developing what he thinks could become a model for converting mining's polluted legacy into tourism-anchored opportunities.
“The reality check has been the harshness of the midwinter conditions and the suboptimal snowpack in this zone for being a ski area. We are not a ski area. This is a special place and the skiing is here when it’s here, but when it’s not here it’s still a place of historic significance and unbelievable beauty and a year-round destination.”Jeff CraneSki school director, New York’s Plattekill Mountain
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Jeff Crane, who grew up in Denver, is a banjo maker and ski school director at New York's Plattekill Mountain. He's enlisted Denver bar owner Matt LaBarge and longtime partner Kate McCoy, a college professor from upstate New York. This summer, the trio joined Harrington in floating plans for a backcountry ski area above the London mine mill.
Crane described it as "a somewhat more elaborate version of a 10th Mountain Hut. … For people who don't want to be at a refined resort and that somewhat sanitized environment."
'The skiing is here when it's here'
That plan has evolved.
After Crane, McCoy and LaBarge visited with local officials this week and studied snow data from the area, they realized that the location, at more than 11,000 feet, is an alpine moonscape where high winds decimate snowpack, creating a high avalanche hazard that pretty much eliminates low-risk backcountry skiing in the meat of winter.
"The reality check has been the harshness of the midwinter conditions and the suboptimal snowpack in this zone for being a ski area," Crane said. "We are not a ski area. This is a special place and the skiing is here when it's here, but when it's not here it's still a place of historic significance and unbelievable beauty and a year-round destination."
Fritz Sperry, one of Colorado's most accomplished ski mountaineers who has penned a trio of guidebooks detailing hundreds of backcountry ski routes on dozens of Colorado's central Rocky Mountain peaks, has spent plenty of time skiing the peaks surrounding Mosquito Pass, one of the highest drivable mountain passes in the state. But never in winter. Too sketchy, he said.
"There is so much good skiing up here. As long as it's spring," said Sperry, who hopes to partner with Crane and McCoy to offer backcountry guided skiing in the early and late season. "The avy conditions up here are scary. Winter skiing up here could be complicated, but spring skiing is epic."
A lot of hoops
Federal laws governing industrial mining zones prohibit new structures, so Crane and his partners are looking at rehabilitating existing buildings around the mill. The easiest first step is to renovate the mill's dilapidated former office, which has small rooms that Crane sees as bed-and-breakfast bunks for travelers who might hire backcountry ski guides to explore the peaks and lines around the mill when avalanche danger is manageable. They like the idea of stabilizing the listing ruins of the North London Mill, which once processed gold ore delivered from the nearby London mines via Colorado's first aerial tramway.
With dreams that outweigh their pocketbooks, Crane and McCoy, on a recent tour of the mill, envisioned a stone fireplace in a timbered great room, with suites and a giant bar, perhaps built from the timbers scattered like toothpicks in the collapsing mill.
"Maybe we can keep it this ruin and just build something into it that would stabilize it," Crane said.
Without investors or benefactors, McCoy is scripting grant proposals that could enlist local and state preservation and historical groups to help fund the project.
"There are a lot of hoops involved to make that happen," McCoy said.
"We want this to be sustainable and it needs to be able to sustain us as well," Crane said. "We know this is a lot of work. It's all about ideas right now."
They wonder if a possible club could include members who help support preservation efforts while backcountry skiing or Jeep touring. Maybe they could host weddings. How about a small music festival?
'i'd like to see it done right'
Under the slowly spinning disco ball in the Alma Town Hall, several dozen residents gathered last week to hear Crane's possible plans for Mosquito Pass.
After outlining a dream for a summer respite for pass travelers and a potential winter destination for backcountry travelers, Crane noted that nothing was set in stone and his team was eager for public input. He expressed a desire to partner with anyone: outfitters, guides, shop owners, gear makers and restaurant owners. Maybe preservationists could use the site to educate visitors on the history of mining.
"Our interest is to get that location inhabitable, sustainable and rehabilitated," he said. "This might not be doable if there is tremendous opposition."
The folks who live in Park City, the tiny cluster of homes south of Alma along County Road 12 that leads up to Mosquito Pass, expressed concerns over any increase in traffic along the unpaved road.
Alma town board member Andrew Zimmerman understands the worries of neighbors who view Mosquito Gulch as their backyard. But he welcomes any ideas for economic growth in his town, which has long served as a bedroom community for nearby Breckenridge.
"I see change and it's going to happen. I'd like to see it done right," he said. "I'd like to see some development, but not in the style of Breckenridge. I'd like something more to scale. It would be nice to give the local people here a chance to find a job and not drive that pass."
An example for others
Harrington knows he's not going to generate millions off a backcountry lodge. But the lodge could be a step toward a larger plan to transition mine sites away from extractive industry.
He's got technology he says can filter heavy metals water for a fraction of traditional clean-up prices. (His Gold King mine water treatment plant is protecting Cement Creek above Silverton after the mine's disastrous blow-out.)
His expanse of mining land in Park County could provide an example for other hard-rock mining locations, like Rio Grande County's Summitville, or Leadville or the Argo Mine in Idaho Springs, where investors are planning a $70 million, tourist-based mixed use development.
What if a tourist operation can help pay for mitigation, like, say, an asphalt parking lot for visitors built atop a tailings pile? Federal land managers would balk at a parking lot in the middle of the woods, but if it was capping a pile of polluting mine waste, maybe not, Harrington said.
"That's a win-win," he said. "At some point in the future, that mountain is going to be looked at in a sustainable way for something other than mining. I want to be open for whatever that is."