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Prison program aids in silver mine reclamation work near Aspen

Marci Krivonen

Inmates from the Rifle Correctional Center helped with final steps of a mine reclamation project near Aspen on Tuesday. Six years ago the Hope Mine was full of toxic mine tailings. The tailings were moved, the hillside recontoured and finally native plants are going into the ground. Aspen Public Radio's Marci Krivonen has more.

Nine inmates in red sweatshirts and green ball caps are spread across a grassy steep hillside. They’re planting columbine, geranium, horsemint and other native vegetation.

"We’ve got one guy digging a hole, one guy putting water in it and one guy planting it," says Josh.

Credit Marci Krivonen
The planting is the last step in a reclamation project at the Hope Mine. It's a former silver mine in the Castle Creek valley.

He's carrying a crate of plants. Josh's last name isn’t being used at the request of the correctional center. He’s part of a program called SWIFT or State Wildland Inmate Fire Team. Today’s project is atypical. Normally, this crew is out fighting fires.

"We’ve been on fourteen fires this summer from Montana to Durango," says Josh.

Todd Snyder is a SWIFT crew boss.

"It’s giving them the skills to actually go out and get a job if they want to continue firefighting when they get out. There’s a lot of opportunity there. They’re learning good work ethic and responsibility."

The SWIFT program only takes non-violent offenders and, with enough “good time” in the field, they can get their sentence reduced.

"We’re trying to get the inmates out of the prison," says Snyder. "The new direction is trying to get them out to be useful in local communities, or wherever they end up.”

Credit Marci Krivonen
Seeds from native plants were collected from the Hope Mine site and then grown in a greenhouse in Buena Vista.

The inmates are providing the wrap-up work on the project to return the Hope Mine to its natural state. The project began as a way to protect Aspen’s drinking water. Near Castle Creek, Olivia Garcia of the Forest Service explains how close mine tailings piles were to falling in the stream.

Credit Marci Krivonen
Olivia Garcia is the Abandoned Mines and Lands Coordinator for the White River National Forest. She says toxic metals were close to sliding into Castle Creek before work started to reclaim the area.

Garcia: "This vegetation here was an indication that there was water here. The ‘toe’ of the waste was being undermined by water, so if the conditions were right, it would’ve caused a slide."

Reporter: “So water was collecting underneath the (mine tailings) pile and it could have slid easily into the creek?”

Garcia: “Yes.”

The mine waste was moved and streambank stabilized. Today’s planting project is the last step. Josh of the Rifle Corrections Center says the work isn’t as difficult as firefighting but equally rewarding.

"I enjoy being outside. I enjoy the wildlife and wilderness. And I like being able to give back."

The plants are meant to encourage pollinator and wildlife habitat. Scientists think they would have grown here had mining never happened.