Environmental scan puts Marble wetlands gift within reach

A view of the wetlands created by the Crystal River as it passes a property that a private owner is seeking to donate for conservation. These important riparian areas are both critical and threatened throughout the west.
Curtis Wackerle / Aspen Journalism

You wouldn’t want to put it in your granola, in the words of Crystal Valley Environmental Protection Association president John Armstrong, but a heap of trash left behind by a 1900s smelter near the banks of the Crystal River in Marble does appear. not pose enough environmental risk to prevent the donation of 55 acres of otherwise beautiful land, mostly wetlands, to a land conservation organization.

But the road to get there has been a long one for the private owner of the now three contiguous plots on the other side of the river that the owner has been trying since 2016 to see ceded and permanently preserved in its natural state. Meanwhile, concerns about the potential liabilities associated with the slag heap have delayed the initiative.

But support from CVEPA, which agreed to spend $ 1,000 on an analysis of the material, as well as a discussion with the Pitkin County Health Rivers and Streams board of directors about a grant, gave impetus to the effort last year.

This spring, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) completed its site scan and determined that the levels of contaminants in the material are within the range considered non-threatening to human health for a recreation site in daytime use.

Ultimately, the analytical work was completed pro bono, and the promoters hope that the pledged funds can be used for materials to fence off the slag heap and install interpretive panels explaining the history of the foundry and smelters. slag left behind. This would complement a possible management framework in which a land conservation agency holds title to the property and allows passive, non-motorized public access along an existing road following the river.

This would adhere to long-standing patterns of use in the field, where private owners have allowed the public to hike, bike or Nordic ski. The Biodiversity Area Straddling the River and Wooded Hill, called by Marble History Museum curator Alex Menard, the unnamed trail, has been the site of nature walks organized by the Roaring Fork Conservancy for observe the beaver dams that dot the wetlands. Part near the slag heap is also marked by giant marble slabs – likely left by a railroad that ran through the site to a marble quarry on Treasure Mountain – which a former owner artistically stacked right next to it. of the trail.

The trail itself leads to scenic waterfalls on Yule Creek, although the falls are just above the property line on an adjacent plot controlled by a separate owner.

Protecting continued public access to these falls along Yule Creek, just beyond the ownership line of a parcel to be donated to a land conservation agency, is an ongoing priority for CVEPA.
Courtesy Photo of John Armstrong

“It really is a wildlife refuge,” said Menard, who helped bring the project to CVEPA’s attention. “It’s a place where you can see an eagle pulling a trout out of the water with its talons, then half a mile up there is a moose; walk a little longer, there is a bear, a blue heron. It is a wild place.

As Armstrong noted, this could also be a desirable location for a “McMansion,” if not for the benevolence of the private donor – an out-of-state woman who also donated the land to the city which becomes. Marble Children’s Park. This land is now owned by Aspen Valley Land Trust, which is working with the city and securing additional grants to beautify the site.

The plots marked in yellow across the Crystal River in Marble are the subject of a unique conservation effort. Beaver Lake is located on state-owned land abutting one of the plots to the north.
Screenshot via Gunnison County GIS Mapping website

AVLT is also essential to the conservation effort on the wetland patch. AVLT staff are completing the survey and title work on the property and will soon be proposing action to the Land Trust Board of Directors. However, the exact form of this action remains to be determined, according to AVLT director Suzanne Stephens.

“(We) have discussed with our land committee the potential acceptance of rights ownership, but we are also exploring potential partnerships and other options for ownership, so it is not a given that we let’s get it over with, ”Stephens wrote in an email. “However, we are committed to seeing it protected in one way or another.”

Potential partners include Colorado Parks and Wildlife, CVEPA, Pitkin County and others, Stephens said.

The site is “without a doubt one of the most important wetlands and riparian parcels in the valley,” Stephens said.

“The fact that it borders Beaver Lake and that almost all of its area is made up of wetlands and rivers makes it extremely important from a land and water conservation perspective,” he said. -she writes, referring to the body of water located on a parcel belonging to CPW to the North. “Habitat is crucial and threatened throughout the west, and combined with the proximity to the town of Marble and the fact that the foundry site is of historical significance and the plot offers flat and easy access and a beautiful promenade make it a rare gem that deserves to be conserved for a multitude of reasons.

The slag pile left by a 1900s smelter on a wetland property is the subject of a unique conservation game that makes its way through various organisms. An analysis from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that the material does not pose a significant health risk if fenced.
Curtis Wackerle / Aspen Journalism

“Like a drop of glass”

In the early days of industrialization and European settlement in the Crystal River Valley, an ore smelting and crushing operation known as the Hoffman smelter was erected on the site, according to Menard’s historical accountancy. The site processed silver, lead, zinc and copper ore transported by mule train from the mines around Marble from around 1898 to 1911.

The foundry is long gone, but its shadow still hangs over the site. According to Armstrong, initial donation efforts in 2016 and 2017 met with concerns over the slinging heap, although supporters have long argued that such concerns would ultimately be inconsequential.

The pile in question – perhaps 50 feet long and 10 feet high and located near the edge of the trail – “looks like something volcanic,” Armstrong said.

However, the largely solid mound loses chunks the size of small boulders. But there is not a strong presence of dust or other material that could be washed away by a rainstorm or become airborne in dry conditions. CVEPA’s hope has been that all toxic material will be inert, locked in the rock.

“I have a strong feeling this shouldn’t be something that should prevent something from acquiring,” Armstrong said in December, as CVEPA awaited the results of a materials analysis involving a private lab and the CDPHE .

A close-up view of the rock-like material collapsing from the slag heap left by a 1900s smelter near Marble.
Curtis Wackerle / Aspen Journalism

The CDPHE – which was reviewing the site following a grant process where projects of public interest are submitted – has substantially completed its analysis and its conclusions match Armstrong’s characterization.

“Nothing is alarming,” said Mark Rudolph, environmental protection analyst and contaminated sites coordinator at CDPHE. He called the slag material “like a drop of glass.”

Rudolph noted that the vegetation around the slag heap is healthy and the water quality in the Crystal River, about 50 yards from the material, meets the highest standards. Lead concentrations in the material are within the range deemed acceptable for recreation sites, he said, and most of it appears to be locked in the rock formation.

A final CDPHE report is pending and will include recommendations on how to manage the site for public use. These recommendations are likely to include clearing the road of any particles that have come loose from the heap. The road was recently constructed using a historic easement which allows access to a neighboring owner, who is developing a house. Other strategies could include reseeding the areas around the pile and using crushed marble or other material to cover the slag particles visible on the shoulder of the road.

“It will be a great addition to the city if we can make it through to the end,” Menard said of the conservation effort.

Blocks of marble, likely connected to a historic railway line leading to a quarry, were artistically stacked by a previous owner along what one Marble resident called “The Nameless Trail.”
Curtis Wackerle / Aspen Journalism

For Armstong and CVEPA, there is still work to be done to ensure public access to the falls, which is about 1.5 miles from the start of the walk through the wetlands. The falls are on the property of the man who recently built the road. He could not be reached for comment.

“The owner of the private property appears willing to allow access, as he has placed ‘no trespassing’ signs higher on the road beyond the access to the falls,” CVEPA wrote in a Winter 2020 newsletter article on the Marble Wetlands Donation Initiative.

Aspen Journalism is a local nonprofit investigative organization that covers the environment in conjunction with The Aspen Times and other Swift Communications journals. To learn more, visit http://www.aspenjournalism.org.