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
"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