Backcountry Enthusiasts Want Equal Access to Upper Camp Bird Road

Meeting-crowd

Local backcountry enthusiasts including Joe Ryan (center row left) and Averill Doering (front row right) were among those who shared their thoughts about backcountry access along the Camp Bird Road at a listening session hosted by the Ouray County Commissioners on Tuesday, Feb. 11. (Photo by Samantha Wright)

By Samantha Wright | Ouray

The Camp Bird Road winds its way up and out of Ouray into some of the most spectacular alpine backcountry of the San Juans, offering access to a shameless extravagance of skiing, mountaineering and ice climbing opportunities.

The upper reaches of the road also lead to a network of historic mines, a few of which are still intermittently active. Currently, new operators are working through the winter months to bring both the Revenue Mine and nearby Ruby Trust Mine back into operation.

These two user groups are once again clashing over how to best share Ouray County’s most famous and treacherous mountain road through the winter months.

A mixed crowd of about 50 local residents representing mining, business, residential and backcountry recreational interests poured into the Ouray County Courtroom to make their thoughts known on the matter at a “Mountain Road Listening Session” hosted by the Ouray Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday evening, Jan. 9.

Since the late 1980s, Ouray County has opted not to maintain the upper reaches of the avalanche-prone Camp Bird Road (more officially known as County Road 361) during the winter months, and has prevented motorized access beyond a certain point near Senator Gulch by means of a locked gate.

But in the interest of facilitating a nascent mining comeback in the area, the county has entered into cooperative winter road maintenance agreements with a succession of mine operators over the past five or so years, granting them exclusive access to their properties at the upper reaches of the Camp Bird Road throughout the winter months.

Ouray Silver Mines, the Revenue Mine’s current operator, says it maintains the road from the gate at Senator Gulch to the mine at a cost ranging from $150,000 to $210,000 per winter depending on conditions – a cost which covers plowing, sanding and avalanche mitigation (conducted by Helitrax out of Telluride).

Although the Camp Bird Road is now well maintained throughout the winter, it is nevertheless steep, slippery and avalanche-prone, and the mine operators continue to prohibit motorized public access on it beyond the gate, citing liability and safety concerns.

Thus, folks who want to use the road to reach ice climbing and backcountry skiing terrain in the area must do what they’ve always done: park at the Senator Gulch gate and huff it up the road in stiff plastic boots – a hike that can take up to five hours round trip if they are headed all the way up to Yankee Boy Basin.

That is a point of contention for some local outdoor enthusiasts and guides, who would like to be able to take advantage of the fact that upper portion of the road is now plowed in order to more easily access their favorite snowy or icy playgrounds.

Map-of-area

The Camp Bird Road, otherwise known as County Road 361, stretches from the town of Ouray all the way up to Yankee Boy Basin, accessing some of the finest backcountry terrain of the San Juan Mountains, and a handful of historic mines that are intermittently active. Public access in the winter stops about halfway up the road, beyond which point only mining traffic is currently allowed. (Map courtesy of Red Mountain Club)

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Sign-at-Gate

This sign now greets backcountry enthusiasts at the Senator Gulch parking area. (Courtesy photo)

The last time miners and backcountry enthusiasts clashed over winter access to the Camp Bird Road was almost exactly three years ago, as Caldera Mineral Resources and Star Mine Operations – operators that have since fallen by the wayside – raced to reopen the Camp Bird Mine and the Revenue Mine respectively in response to soaring gold and silver prices.

Then, as now, the mines blocked public motorized access beyond the gate at Senator Gulch as part of their winter maintenance agreement with the county.

“It’s a rather bizarre scene at Senator Gulch,” observed one county resident at the time. “There’s a well-maintained road and a sign that says the road is closed. The road isn’t closed. It’s closed to some and open to others.”

But that didn’t stop ice climbers from hiking up the road to access a popular backcountry ice climbing area called Skylight, located on cliffs that rise up steeply directly above the upper Camp Bird Road about 15 minutes’ walk from the parking area at the gate.

Tensions mounted that winter, as a heavy stream of mine traffic and plows had to contend with ice climbers at Skylight, who often belayed their partners from the middle of the road. Then, one weekend in February 2013, ice climbers and local guides were shocked and angered to encounter a sign that appeared to ban them from the area altogether.

The sign, placed by County Road and Bridge Superintendent Chris Miller, stated that no rock or ice climbing was allowed within 60 feet of the road all year. It sent the climbing community into a frenzy of indignation. A series of heated public meetings ensued, and the sign has since been replaced with a friendlier one that welcomes ice climbers and skiers but cautions them to stay out of the way of mine traffic.

New Cast of Characters

Camp-Bird-Plowing

Ouray Silver Mines is currently responsible for plowing the upper Camp Bird Road through a cooperative winter maintenance agreement with Ouray County. (Courtesy photo)

A few things have changed since then.

A double-fatality at the Revenue Mine in October 2013 was the death knell of Star Mine Operations, and Caldera disappeared after failing to secure financing for its Camp Bird Mine venture. The last operator of the Revenue Mine, a Canadian company called Fortune Minerals Inc., defaulted on its $35 million financing deal last July and laid off well over 100 employees who had been working to reopen the Revenue and bring it back into production.

Out of the ashes of Fortune Minerals’ local subsidiary, Fortune Revenue Silver Mine, rose a new operator called Ouray Silver Mines, Inc. that oversaw the transition of the Revenue Mine into “care and maintenance” mode with a skeleton crew. The property was taken over by Fortune’s financier, the New York-based Lascaux Resources Corp.

Last fall, OSM forged a relationship with a private Colorado-based mining company, Fairplay Mining Inc., and the two entities began discussing strategic plans for reviving the Revenue Mine once again over the coming year.

OSM Chief Operating Officer and Fairplay Mining Inc. President and CEO Brian Briggs, a sixth-generation Ouray native who comes from a long-time mining family, outlined his companies’ plans for the Revenue Mine at Tuesday’s meeting.

Through a newly minted joint venture, he said, Fairplay and Lascaux plan to sink over a million dollars into the property over the coming year and hire up to 160 miners and support crew to bring the mine and its mill back into operation.

The economic benefit to the Ouray community should be significant, Briggs said, as miners return to high-paying jobs, potentially creating “up to 10 additional support jobs in the community for every one mining job,” and producing an estimated $1 million annually in severance taxes that will flow into Ouray County coffers once the mine is up and running.

While Briggs said he was sympathetic to the outdoor recreation community’s request for equal access to the upper Camp Bird Road, he outlined a number of specific concerns the mining company has with opening it up to the public.

Those concerns ranged from complications with avalanche mitigation to the perennial problem of parking (in short, there is no place for the public to safely park along the narrow, steep and exposed road without blocking mine traffic) to the extremely hazardous nature of the road itself, particularly in the winter.

“When road maintenance equipment encounters cars traveling along the road it will require either vehicle to back up which will cause an immediate safety hazard both to OSM employees and occupants of the vehicle,” Briggs said. “We are not a fan of opening the road to the public. But if the road is going to be used, it’s important for it to be used in a safe manner.”

The Ruby Trust Mine near Yankee Boy Basin is also seeing a flurry of new activity this winter under new owner Mickey Tiner of Texas, who said he has sunk $700,000 into the property over the past three months and ultimately plans to run the mine with “around 10 employees.”

Tiner said that he frequently encounters backcountry enthusiasts trekking up and down the Camp Bird Road. “They are very nice people. I talk to them all the time.” But, he added, “The main thing is safety. It’s dangerous, extremely dangerous.”

‘Remove Roadblocks to Recreation’

parking-at-gate

In the winter, the parking area at the Senator Gulch gate is frequently chock-a-clock full of vehicles belonging to backcountry enthusiasts. (Courtesy photo)

Averill Doering, who runs a local Ouray business called the Guide Garage and is co-founder of the Red Mountain Club which advocates for better backcountry access, made the case for opening up the road above the Senator Gulch gate to backcountry enthusiasts.

Currently, Doering said, in order to reach favorite ice climbing and skiing destinations, “You need to walk on a steep winding narrow road with mine traffic. We kind of think it’s funny that keeping the road closed as it is to public vehicles is somehow safer. We are still letting people walk the road, and instead of driving for five minutes, it’s taking them five hours. There is a conflict of reality there in terms of the safety of the current proposal.”

Doering touted the economic benefits that backcountry recreation has brought to the region in recent years, and challenged the notion that mining offers similar benefits.

“We have heard a lot from Ouray Silver Mines about its potential to bring positive economic impacts, and I would just beg the question: what have we seen in the past two iterations of same plan?” she said. “We have seen deaths, we have seen layoffs, we have seen lack of production, and in my understanding, the county did not receive any direct taxes from previous iterations.”

Doering urged the commissioners to approach the new mining venture “with hesitancy… What has changed so significantly about the nature of the mine itself and the value of minerals to make this new operation a strong economic benefit?”

Should Safety Trump Access? 

OSM’s Clint Fletcher, in turn, defended his company’s operations, asserted that the mine company has indeed paid its taxes and pointed out that “it is very normal for a new mine to encounter troubles, and it can take multiple years to get a mine into operation.” He argued that “in terms of safety, driving up the road presents a severe avalanche danger and also a slipping hazard.”

Martin Gallon, Chief Operating Officer at Fairplay Mining Inc., underscored the severity of the situation. “I have worked right round the world including Siberia, so I know about snow,” he said. “It took our guys a week to clear the road after the last big storm. There were some serious avalanches – some we have never seen before. It’s a very dangerous road.”

Safety also weighed heavily on the minds of others in the room, including Ouray native Mary Cockle. “I would like to see that road stay safe,” she said. “I have been around when people have been buried in avalanches and it’s no fun. It’s serious stuff. It really is.”

John Trujillo, a local mining geologist now employed by Fairplay Mining Inc. who formerly worked at the Revenue Mine on Star Mine Operations’ watch, argued that although avalanche mitigation has now vastly improved along the Camp Bird Road making it safer for public access, “the mining company has taken on the burden economically, and they’ve taken on the liability. They cannot spread that liability under an umbrella for everybody,” he said. “I would ask the commissioners, are you ready to take that expense and liability on yourself?”

Trujillo sought to dispel the notion that recreation should take precedence over mining in the county’s policy-making. “I sat on the Planning Commission for 15 years and helped write our land use code, and that land use code has a master plan that says we are proud of our mining heritage and will do everything to support it,” he said. “It doesn’t say anything about recreation. You are directed by the master plan and it says mining and agriculture are our heritage, and that’s what you will support. Until that changes I believe you are bound by that statement.”

Ouray resident Sean Hart, meanwhile, asked the BOCC “to look at this issue with equity rather than history,” and refrain from granting the mining industry exclusive access to the Camp Bird Road. “I think the mining community needs to continue to prove what they are doing for the community,” he said. “And I think the county needs to cease treating the mining community with prejudice over everyone else. I think that has happened in the past. The recent past. And you are going to get in trouble for treating someone preferentially.”

Local alpinist Kevin Koprek agreed. “I feel like the mine has the ability to throw around a lot of staggering numbers that can influence policy, and I would encourage you to actively seek out accurate information,” he said. “The actions of previous mine operators have been unconscionable. I would like to see them held accountable.”

San Juan Mountain Huts operator Joe Ryan was in the unique position of being able to straddle both sides of the argument, being a former miner as well as an old-school backcountry skier and ice climber.

Ryan said that he has driven on the Camp Bird Road “quite a bit,” when it used to be plowed up to the Ruby Trust Mine, “and that road used to scare the bejeezus out of me,” he said. “It’s a very serious road.”

At the same time, he added, “I have gone from the gate closure, and booted it in stiff plastic boots all the way up into Yankee Boy to Sneffels. I understand the problems of booting it in hard plastic boots all the way up that road. It’s not a lot of fun.”

Nevertheless, he argued, “I don’t think that driving up and down that road, as slick and bad as it can be, is a good idea because you’ve got big mining rigs going up and down it. They are there to do a job. Often we are up there playing. We can possibly afford to walk a little more.”

Possible Solutions

Ryan endorsed the idea of creating a shuttle system to transport guides, their clients, and independent outdoor enthusiasts up and down the upper Camp Bird Road rather than allowing them to drive it themselves. “You really don’t want to have a truckful of clients going over side of road when they are going ice-climbing or skiing because they don’t know how to drive the road,” he said.

Brandy Ross, owner of Switzerland of America Jeep Rentals, also liked the idea of a shuttle system. “They would be communicating specifically with the mine and that would alleviate a lot of the safety concern and minimize the traffic up there,” she said.

Other suggestions for a possible compromise included opening up the Camp Bird Road to the public a bit earlier in the spring – perhaps April 1 or 15 rather than May 1, with spot closures for any necessary avalanche mitigation.

Underground-mining-activity-at-the-Revenue-Silver-Mine-in-2014

Inside the Revenue Silver Mine. (Photo courtesy Fortune Minerals Inc.)

Who’s In Charge of This Road, Anyway?

Ouray District Ranger Tammy Randall-Parker weighed in with the U.S. Forest Service’s perspective, reminding the county commissioners that the USFS claims jurisdiction over the Camp Bird Road/ CR361 as National Forest Service Road 853.

“It is a public road owned by the Forest Service, a public road owned by all the people that live in this country,” she said.

For years, Ouray County and the USFS have essentially agreed to disagree on this contentious matter, which would ultimately have to be resolved in a protracted and expensive legal battle. 

For the time being, Randall-Parker simply stated that “after hearing what I have heard tonight, I  am inclined to have some additional public meetings to talk about the concerns you have with safety and multiple use. I do think there are ways we can manage the road that would serve all sectors of the public,” she said. “I share many of your concerns when it comes to safety and making sure we can provide for multiple use and all sectors of the economy.”

The BOCC also promised to keep the conversation going until an equitable solution can be reached.

Discussion Tuesday broached public and private winter access issues along other county roads as well, including County Road 5 which leads to popular backcountry and cross country skiing terrain along the flanks of the Sneffels Range beyond the Elk Meadows subdivision.

Commissioner Ben Tisdel assured the public that, “We are not seeking to close roads but seek a balance among users. We are not trying to shut anyone down. We are here to listen and come up with a solution that works.”

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About the Author

Samantha Wright

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Samantha Tisdel Wright writes and raises two red-headed children in the San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado, dividing her time between Silverton and Ouray. She has worked as a reporter and editor for a variety of publications throughout the region, and is proud to be a founding member and co-editor of the San Juan Independent. samantha@sjindependent.org