Like much of the West, Colorado was built upon the dream of gold. But a century later, the quest for a precious commodity of a different sort is luring urban refugees to former mining towns in the Rocky Mountains.
The new West pioneers arrive here seeking pristine and serene mountain settings far from the bustle of city life. In small towns with names like Gold Hill, Nederland, and Eldora, the appeal of the old West is palpable. But for many newcomers, the romance has faltered upon discovering that they must share their slice of paradise with the gold-mining industry.
Nowhere is the battle more evident than in the tiny mountain community of Eldora (population 100). Here, residents have little nostalgic sentiment for the Mogul Tunnel Mine, a gold and silver mining operation established in 1897.
"That mine doesn't belong here. It's an industrial use in a community of people who chose to live here for peace and quiet," says Park Teter, co-founder of Friends of Eldora Valley, a citizens' group of 80 locals who view area gold-mining ventures as an assault on their tranquil lifestyle.
The debate is gathering steam throughout the West with the influx of new residents. Colorado is the fifth-fastest-growing state in the country. Since 1990, it has added some 530,000 new residents - roughly equivalent to the population of Denver.
But long before the condos, ski resorts, and cattle ranches, there were gold mines, miners say. Mining was the first industry here and in much of the West, and gold-mining claims are still prevalent in these rugged canyons. Today the 1872 federal mining law that grants miners "use by right" to mining claims is as effective as the day it was written.
Even so, historic mining laws are an emerging source of conflict, says Roger Flynn, director of Western Mining Action Project, a nonprofit environmental group.
"State and federal mining laws are meant to encourage mining. But just because a tradition and practice is old does not leave it immune to democracy," Mr. Flynn says.
Ticking off concerns about noise, dust, aesthetics, mine dump, and water quality, Mr. Teter maintains that in the 1990s, mining isn't appropriate in Eldora. Teter's group has spent the better part of a year lobbying for revisions to county zoning laws, intended to make it tougher for mines to operate in residential areas. In the coming month, the Boulder County Commissioners will vote on the proposed changes.
But the mining community here, with roots back to the 1860s, counters that underground gold mines like the Mogul Tunnel have far less impact on the environment than do residents of burgeoning mountain towns.
"There is so much more pollution, traffic, and noise created by these mountain bedroom communities than the mine itself ever produces," says John Miner, general manager for the Eldora mine. "The Mogul Tunnel is a mom-and-pop operation, not some huge corporate gold-mining operation."
Perhaps more significant, the mineral deposits came first, says Mr. Miner - and federal law designates mining as the first and best use of land. "The rock is where God put it, and there's no moving it. Federal law says you take the minerals first. That's the way our country was built."
Flynn, based in Boulder, Colo., is currently helping communities in every Western state fight mining ventures. For the most part, he is enlisted to fight large-scale mines on federal lands. The Eldora case is somewhat unusual in that the mine sits on private land; it is also the critical detail for pursuing county regulation of the mine.
"The Colorado Supreme Court has affirmed counties' rights to impose zoning restrictions on private land," Flynn says. Counties cannot prevent mining on public lands.
In Boulder County, all surface-mining operations on private land are subject to "special use review," as are subsurface mines in agricultural districts. But underground mines in mountain districts - like the Mogul mine - have always been exempt from the county review process.
Flynn, on behalf of Friends of Eldora Valley, hopes to see that "loophole" closed. "Under special review, the county has the ability to say 'no' to a mine if it is not in harmony with the neighborhood or surrounding area," he notes. State and federal laws, conversely, provide no opportunity to challenge a mine based on its compatibility with a community.
At the turn of the century, when Eldora had a peak population of 1,300, compatibility wasn't an issue. Miners built their cabins near the mine for convenience. Consequently, today the town center sits a mere 150 yards from the mine entrance, and the closest cabins are 300 feet away.
When Teter moved to a log cabin here four years ago, the Mogul mine had been dormant for many years. So he was surprised when the mine promptly reopened, and he could see and hear mine operations from his doorstep.
Charles Rugg, a lifelong Eldora resident who inherited the Mogul Tunnel from his grandfather, had been quietly prospecting in the mine since World War II, adding other miners claims over the years. He liked to say he was "buying all the old miners' dreams." Four years ago, the retired miner decided to lease the Mogul Tunnel to a commercial mining company.
It wasn't long before the miners' collective dreams collided with those of Eldora residents. Noise from blasting, drills, compressors, and ore-laden trucks soon intruded on residents' lives, Teter says.
Local mining proponents say objections are grossly exaggerated. "That mine is very small and unobtrusive. This is almost like harassment of small miners," says Deward Walker Jr., a University of Colorado professor who lives at Logan Mill, a historic gold-mining property near Boulder. "There's 100 times more blasting and disruption associated with building houses and roads in the county than goes on with any mining."
Like most miners, Dr. Walker's greatest fear is that zoning changes could rob mine owners of access to their mineral deposits. "There are long-held family mines that people felt had a first right-of-use. Now that right is being jeopardized," he says. "If this proposal goes through, many people feel they'll have to sell out to real estate developers. But we don't want crowded development; we want to keep the mountains pristine."