FAIRPLAY· Some people have retirement funds. Boyd Astemborski has a trash-strewn field in this Park County town, which he says may hide enough gold to make him wealthy.
A Colorado Springs jeweler, he staked a claim to this 80-acre plot of federal land 16 years ago, hoping the miners who bored through South Park from 1859 until World War II missed what could be a rich gold vein.
Instead, he has struck a mother lode of outrage. Many who moved here or bought second homes since Astemborski staked his claim, unaware of the potential for mining, are unhappy with his plan. They have picketed and shouted down Astemborski, circulated a petition and started a Web site to stop the mine.
It's a fight being repeated throughout the West. The 1872 mining law that governs minerals on federal land allows anybody to stake a claim for as little as $2 an acre without paying royalties for minerals and gives the government little authority to stop mines. Soaring gold and metal prices have led to a new rush on minerals. Mining built many Western towns, but tourism and retirees now make them tick, and many doubt the past and present can co-exist.
In Fairplay, a town founded by miners driven out of other areas during the "Pike's Peak or Bust" gold rush, where every man was said to have an equal chance to stake a claim, Astemborski says opponents are trying to deny him his rights.
"I didn't expect this kind of opposition, but hey, they've got to do what they've got to do. I'm just going to ignore it and go about my business," said Astemborski, 55.
"I was here first. It's zoned for mining," he said.
Astemborski is not a grizzled prospector of old, but a businessman who has been planning the operation for a long time. He owned Claim Jumpers Rock Shop in Manitou Springs for 16 years, succumbing to poor business in January. He has panned and dug for gold throughout the Rockies, and owns claims to hundreds more acres on federal land in Park County.
"It's in your blood," he said of mining. "I love it. It's challenging."
He chose the current site, which is on U.S. Bureau of Land Management property just west of Fairplay, because he found historic drilling results in the archives of the Colorado School of Mines that indicate it is the "richest in the area," he said.
By Colorado standards, it would not be a big operation, three or four workers with a couple pieces of equipment, working an initial 1.5 acres, digging down 25 feet. If successful, he wants to mine the entire 80 acres. He would build a new road into the site and berms to screen the operation from houses and operate six days a week. The method would be placer mining, essentially digging a hole and using water to separate gold from the grit, the same method miners would have used in 1859.
He has not submitted a permit application with the BLM. When he tried to meet with officials last month at the site, a Denver television station camera crew and 20 protesters showed up, waving signs and jeering at Astemborski. The meeting was canceled.
Dozens of houses have been built within sight and earshot of the operation - a few new, unsold homes are across the street - and opponents say the planned mine is too close to houses, with impacts to noise, air quality, recreation, wildlife, safety, property values and the lifestyle of the mountain community, while offering no benefits.
"The proponent, Mr. Astemborski, doesn't think we have the financial, technical or educational resources to fight it. This mine is being proposed here because he believes he can make a profit off of our weaknesses," the opposition group, No Fairplay Mine, said in a statement e-mailed Tuesday to The Gazette.
The town of Fairplay has not taken a position on the mine - it is just outside town limits - though it did decline to sell Astemborski water. He said he plans to drill a well. Mining is allowed in the area zoned for conservation/recreation, so Park County will review the project but does not have to issue a permit for him to proceed, said county planner John Deagan.
The BLM has not received Astemborski's application, so agency spokesman Jim Sample said he could not comment on it. Opponents want the agency to do an environmental impact statement, an exhaustive review that includes public comment. But small gold operations involving less than 5 acres of disturbance, which is Astemborski's initial plan, don't require such a review, Sample said. If he were to seek to sell sand or gravel, the project would require an environmental review.
Dusty Horwitt, an analyst with the Environmental Working Group, a Washington environmental group pushing for reform of the 1872 mining law, said in most cases, federal officials approve mining operations.
"Cases like this ... highlight how outdated the mining law is, because it leaves the federal government virtually powerless to balance mining with other interests," said Horwitt.
Astemborski also needs a permit from the Colorado Division of Mining, Reclamation and Safety.
A 2008 study by the Environmental Working Group said mineral claims on federal land in Colorado increased from 5,430 in 2003 to 23,473 in 2008. Within 5 miles of Fairplay, claims jumped from 11 to 39.
"They operate according to outdated standards and a mine could potentially leave behind a multi-million dollar clean-up for taxpayers and contaminated water," Horwitt said.
Attempts in Congress in 2007 to update the law failed, though legislation is again pending.
Astemborski disagrees his mine poses a threat to the community.
He has to submit a bond - it is unclear for how much money - to ensure the land is reclaimed after mining. No chemicals would be used, and water would be contained at the site, he said. He acknowledges there would be noise and dust that may inconvenience neighbors.
"I can't help it if they didn't check out the property before they bought out here," he said. "These people should have checked and saw there was a mining claim here."
He said he wants to be a good neighbor, but he doesn't plan to walk away. With the instability in the economy, he says, gold is going to increase in value.
"I believe Americans should fight for what's rightfully theirs and that's what I'm doing here," he said.