Recreational Activities Drive Gunnison County’s Economic Engine – September 08

Study Cites Declining Importance of Mining in the Region

DENVER, Colorado – Say hello to tourists, hikers, hunters, skiers and wealthy retired folks. Say goodbye to mining? Not if the 1872 mining law stands in the way. The dramatic 30-year transformation of Colorado’s Gunnison County is almost complete, according to a new study by the Sonoran Institute, yet a Civil War-era statute would have this community embrace an outdated, and potentially damaging, mining economy.

Tourism, hunting and fishing, a surge in second home construction and an influx of entrepreneurs and wealthy retired people have transformed the economy of the county and many of its communities, including Crested Butte. A recent resurgence of interest in mining and mineral development near Crested Butte, however, could undercut the new emerging tourism-dependent economy in the region according to the study. The report indicates that if the proposed Lucky Jack mine operations displaced only a small percentage of travel and tourism-related spending in the region, the economic loss could be significant.

“This report shows exactly why the 1872 Mining Law should be reformed, and that it’s no longer appropriate for mining to be prioritized above all other uses,” said Dan Morse, Public Lands Director for the Crested Butte based High Country Citizens’ Alliance.  “The Federal mining law must recognize that the West has become a very different place in the past 136 years and mining is not always the most economically beneficial use of our public lands.”

“The local economies of Crested Butte and Gunnison County exemplify the changing economy of the West,” said Joe Marlow, resource economist for the Sonoran Institute and author of the study. “People are moving to the rural West to live and work primarily due to quality of life considerations. Given the abundance of protected public lands and recreational activities in the area, it starts with tourism, but quickly evolves into more permanent economic activity including second home building and local entrepreneurship.”

The study ties almost 40 percent of the jobs in Gunnison County to tourism and travel spending, which makes tourism the single most important industry in the county. In 2005, tourists pumped over $131.5 million into local businesses during overnight visits to the area. “Travel spending is actually more important in the rural counties because it is a much larger proportion of the local economies than it is in the major metropolitan areas,” said Marlow. “Our concern is that adequate consideration has not been given to the potential disruption to local economies by a major new mining operation in the Crested Butte area, along with the setback this could pose to progress these communities have made over the years to reinvent and diversify their economic base.”

Marlow suggests that the local community should compare potential benefits and costs to determine whether the proposed Luck Jack Mine, an underground molybdenum project located three miles west of Crested Butte in the Gunnison National Forest, is justified. “These issues have to be critically examined since the decisions made will strongly impact the area’s future economic prosperity and sustainability,” he said.

Alan Bernholtz, Mayor of Crested Butte, voiced similar sentiments. “The Town Council’s first priority is to protect the community’s best interests,” he said. “I believe that the report clearly shows that a mine would not have the beneficial economic effects that some in the community may have previously thought.”

“The study by the Sonoran Institute makes it very clear that the amenity and emerging knowledge-based sectors are the most significant components of our local economy,” said Christi Matthews, Executive Director at the Crested Butte / Mt. Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce.  “A mine on Mt. Emmons would destroy these fundamentals of our economy and cause irreparable harm to our businesses.”

The complete study can be found on the Sonoran Institute website,

The nonprofit Sonoran Institute has inspired, informed and enabled community decisions and public policies that respect the land and people of western North America since 1990. The Institute helps communities conserve and restore natural and cultural assets and manage growth and change through collaboration, civil dialogue, sound information, and big-picture thinking.

Sonoran has a Colorado policy office in Denver at 1536 Wynkoop Street, Suite #307 and will be opening a western Colorado program office in Glenwood Springs in November.