WIld Connections partners with EcoFlight for a Grape Creek Virtual Tour!
Now with Intro by Congresswoman DeGette!
We are really excited to present a Grape Creek Virtual Tour, teaming up with our friends at EcoFlight, to highlight the illegal proposed mining threats to the Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area and proposed Wilderness.
The short video includes a recent EcoFlight flyover of the rugged and scenic Grape Creek watershed, just west of Cañon City. Wild Connections Conservation Director, John Sztukowski, is your guide as he interacts with EcoFlight's pilot and founder Bruce Gordon and expert "virtual passengers," all practicing super safe social distancing measures, and explain the values of Grape Creek and the proposed mining threats to local wildlife, recreation, and the economy.
Wild Connections and EcoFlight also had a chance recently to sit down virtually with Congresswoman DeGette and discuss the values and threats at the Grape Creek proposed Wilderness. Find her intro and Grape Creek Virtual Tour below!
Recent History of Mining Threats at Grape Creek
The Grape Creek watershed and contiguous lands are some of the most intact wild and scenic public lands in the state, and provide habitat and range to numerous wildlife species, as well as providing a number of backcountry recreational opportunities for residents and tourists.
Over the past couple of years Zephyr Minerals – a Canadian company – has been seeking permits for a variety of gold mining activities in the Grape Creek area, located just southwest of Cañon City, onto wild and scenic State and BLM public lands, including onto the Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and proposed Wilderness, which passed the US House earlier this year under the Protecting America's Wilderness Act, part of Congresswoman DeGette's Colorado Wilderness Act. Last year the Colorado State Land Board approved a Conditional Use Permit for Zephyr Mineral's proposed gold mining on the Grape Creek - Horseshoe Mountain State Stewardship Trust Parcel. Zephyr is now looking to nearly triple their exploration onto BLM's Grape Creek WSA, which should be illegal because the company does not have a valid existing right and thus their exploration violates BLM's non-impairment criteria for WSA management. Alarmingly, Fremont County approved the proposal earlier this year, and if it moves forward with state permits that Zephyr is currently seeking, exploration will begin this July as the local BLM Royal Gorge Field Office has decided not to even do an environmental review or public input process! Exploratory mining impacts onto the Grape Creek proposed Wilderness will include drill holes, helicopter landing pads and low flyovers, and laying pipes that will pump water out of Grape Creek to the exploration sites. Zephyr Minerals has erroneously claimed in a Cañon City Daily Record article that in utilizing helicopters there will be no impact, however low helicopter flying and landing greatly disturbs and stresses local wildlife, including the local Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep herd, Colorado’s official state animal.
The Canadian mineral company also does not acknowledge the threats that their mining exploration, including pumping water out of Grape Creek, will have on the local fish population, angling and other backcountry recreation, or tourism and the local economy. And most concerning is that instead of outright rejecting this illegal proposal, the BLM Royal Gorge Field Office is choosing to not even do an environmental assessment or public input process, even though they could and should, and would rather just work behind the scenes with Zephyr. BLM Royal Gorge Field Manager, Keith Berger, signed off on this in a March 2020 letter to Zephyr. The BLM also manages this area of our public lands as the Grape Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which they have identified as “a corridor of significant naturalness character with unique high desert riparian resources, scenic and visual qualities, flora, and fauna values, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and peregrine falcon nesting areas”. The BLM is supposed to manage and protect these critical environmental and recreational values.
Where do things stand now?
In July, Wild Connections and INFORM appealed the Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety (DRMS)'s decision to approve Zephyr's mineral application proposal to expand onto the Grape Creek proposed Wilderness and Wilderness Study Area (WSA). Unfortunately our appeal was denied by the Mining, Land, and Reclamation Board on July 22, 2020.
In our appeal process, Zephyr disclosed new information, specifically that they will be constructing helicopter landing pads, which should trigger the BLM to have them submit a Plan of Operations and do an Environmental Assessment.
Inform, Wild Connections, and Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition sent a joint letter to BLM Royal Gorge Field Office and to BLM Colorado, notifying them of Zephyr's updated plans, and the BLM actions that it should trigger.
Governor Polis and Congresswoman DeGette have also recently weighed in with concerning letters to BLM Colorado regarding their lack of action on this.
However with BLM slow to reply, Zephyr wasted no time and began their mineral exploration into the Grape Creek proposed Wilderness on July 31, transporting materials via low helicopter flyovers, drilling for samples, and noisily and disturbingly pumping water out of Grape Creek up hundreds of feet to the drill site. Interestingly, the mineral company only took one sample within the WSA, wrapping up in August with middling results, however essentially have permission to go back in for more sampling in the WSA in the next few years.
Wild Connections and partners have already flagged to the BLM that this proposal is illegal as the company does not have a valid existing right because these claims are recent and therefore violate the non-impairment standard of BLM's Wilderness Study Area Manual. Wild Connections and partners will continue to monitor this egregious mining exploration at Grape Creek closely.
What can I do?
Grape Creek just downriver of proposed mining exploration. Photo Wild Connections.
The exploratory mining has wrapped up for now, however you can still contact the BLM to let them know how you feel about this egregious exploration onto BLM's Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area and proposed Wilderness.
Since the BLM did not plan to have an official public comment period for this very disconcerting proposal, Wild Connections suggests that if you have any concerning comments or questions, or want to let the BLM know that they should not have opened up the Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area to illegal mining exploration,
direct them to BLM Royal Gorge Field Manager, Keith Berger, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
BLM won’t be keeping an official record of these comments, so please CC your comment to email@example.com.
Putting public pressure on the BLM is one of our best opportunities to get them to act responsibly as a steward for our Grape Creek public lands.
Timeline & Government Actions
April 2019: the Colorado State Land Board approved a Conditional Use Permit for Zephyr Mineral's proposed gold mining on the Grape Creek - Horseshoe Mountain State Stewardship Trust Parcel (Section 16).
February 2020: the Fremont County Commissioners unanimously approved Zephyr’s proposal to nearly triple the size of their Permit onto portions of BLM's Grape Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern and the Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area. This proposal gives permission to Zephyr to explore for gold and other minerals in a swathe of land running from south of the Dawson Ranch subdivision in Cañon City to the Green Mountain mine site west of Grape Creek.
March 25, 2020: In a letter from the BLM Royal Gorge to Zephyr, BLM Royal Gorge Field Manager, Keith Berger, stated that based on the exploration proposal, no Plan of Operations will be required for submittal and that BLM would coordinate with Zephyr on the activities behind the scenes. The letter does not reference the claims being illegal, as BLM erroneously uses language for claims that pre-date the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, however that is invalid for this exploration as Zephyr's claims are only from the last few years! This alarmingly questions whether the local BLM office will do any sort of environmental assessment or have a public input process for this illegal mining proposal onto BLM managed Wilderness Study Area and Area of Critical Environmental Concern!
April 2020: Colorado Division of Reclamation, Mining, and Safety (DRMS), where Zephyr had a similar request, issued a decision that Zephyr must file an entirely new Notice of Intent application.Zephyr filed the new application with CO DRMS. The comment period ended April 27, and DRMS received over 50 comments concerned with the mining proposal! Wild Connections and The Wilderness Society submitted joint comments finding that this proposal is illegal as the company does not have a valid existing right because these claims are recent and therefore violate the non-impairment standard of BLM's Wilderness Study Area Manual. We sent these comments to the BLM Royal Gorge Field Office as well. CO DRMS is currently assessing Zephy'r's mineral application.
June 2020: CO DRMS approved Zephyr's application after some back and forth. Wild Connections and INFORM have filed a joint appeal. which will be heard on July 22. The Canadian company Zephyr has delayed their 2020 mineral exploration by a few weeks due to this, and disparaged our organizations in their press release over it.
July 2020: July 22, Wild Connections, and INFORM CO's DRMS appeal was denied by the Mining, Land, and Reclamation Board, however disclosures by Zephyr in the appeal case, specifically that they will be constructing helicopter landing pads, should trigger the BLM to have them submit a Plan of Operations and do an Environmental Assessment.
July 2020: Inform, Wild Connections, and Central Colorado Wilderness Coalition sent a joint letter to BLM Royal Gorge Field Office and to BLM Colorado, notifying them of Zephyr's updated plans, which should require the BLM to follow-up for a Plan of Operations and do an Environmental Assessment.
August 2020: Zephyr begins their self-proclaimed "no impact" mining exploration into the Grape Creek proposed Wilderness and Wilderness Study Area! They wrapped up after taking only one sample, with middling results. BLM allowed this exploration to procede despite objections from the local public, Congresswoman DeGette, and Governor Polis.
Grape Creek Area Values and Talking Points:
Grape Creek - Horseshoe Mountain State Stewardship Trust Parcel was designated in 1999 to be managed for "only those uses that will protect and enhance the beauty, natural values, open space and wildlife habitat of those lands."
BLM's Grape Creek Area of Critical Environmental Concern ACEC which they currently manage and protect, “as a corridor of significant natural character with unique desert riparian resources, scenic and visual qualities, flora and fauna values (bighorn sheep and peregrine falcon nesting area).”
BLM's Grape Creek Wilderness Study Area was designated in 1980 and consists of over 21,400 acres between the Lower and Upper Grape Creek WSAs. The Grape Creek WSA has diverse terrain from rolling hills to rugged canyons and mountains to rich riparian zones along the creek, has cultural and historical significance, provides refuge for many local wildlife species (see below) and supports many backcountry recreational activities (also see below).
BLM's Grape Creek WSA, and adjacent USFS public lands make up the approximately 35,000 acre Grape Creek proposed Wilderness, which has been proposed for wilderness numerous times under Congresswoman DeGette's Colorado Wilderness Act, and passed the House of Representatives on February 12, 2020 as the Protect America’s Wilderness Act.
The Grape Creek Watershed provides High Habitat and Range for several Wildlife Species, including Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, black bear, elk, mule deer, white-tailed deer, pronghorn, mountain lion, Brazilian free tailed bat, Townsend's big-eared bat, Gunnison's prairie dog, Aberts squirrel, bald eagle, Mexican spotted owl (proposed critical habitat), scaled quail, wild turkey, great blue heron, Canadian goose, and brown trout.
Colorado Natural Heritage Program identified the Grape Creek riparian corridor and watershed as the Grape Creek Potential Conservation Area for its "very high biodiversity significance" due to "excellent (A-ranked) and a good (B-ranked) occurrence of a globally imperiled (G2G3/S2S3) riparian natural community, narrowleaf cottonwood - Rocky Mountain juniper (Populus angustifolia - Juniperus scopulorum) woodland. Additionally, there is a good (B-ranked) occurrence of the globally vulnerable (G3/S2) narrowleaf cottonwood - Douglas-fir (Populus angustifolia - Pseudotsuga menziesii) woodland and a good to fair (BC-ranked) occurrence of the apparently globally secure but state imperiled (G4/S2) Rocky Mountain juniper / Red-osier dogwood (Juniperus scopulorum / Cornus sericea) woodland. Several fair (C-ranked) occurrences of a globally imperiled (G2/S2) plant, Arkansas Canyon stickleaf (Nuttallia densa), have also been documented.
Grape Creek, and the nearby Temple Canyon Park, provide local Canon City residents, and tourists, with many forms of primitive recreation including fishing, hiking, camping, hunting, bird watching, scenic viewing, photography, and bouldering.
Grape Creek recreation brings tourism and money to the local economy. It not only benefits local guides and outfitters, but produces beneficial secondary and tertiary spending at local shops, gas stations, and hotels.
Wild Connections and other conservation groups, as well as many individuals, have contacted the various agencies expressing opposition to these mining activities that could cause irreparable harm to Wilderness values, the Grape Creek water table, and excellent wildlife habitat.