Digging Deep: The Years-Long Fight to Protect Glenwood Springs' Tourism
Since 2018, Glenwood Springs community members have banded together to fight against Rocky Mountain Industrials' expansion proposal at the Mid-Continent Quarry. They say protecting the city’s tourism economy is one of the main reasons for the years-long battle, and it wasn’t until the pandemic began that the community got a glimpse of what life could be like if the expansion were to be approved.
Glenwood Springs sees nearly two million tourists a year, and that tourism is the base of the city’s economy. One of the main attractions in town is the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, where guests take the gondola up to explore caves, see the breath-taking views of the city and enjoy the rides. It sits on a mountain just east of the Mid-Continent Quarry where Rocky Mountain Industrials mines 40,000-60,000 pounds of limestone each year.
Despite guests being able to see the quarry from the gondola and certain points in the park, Steve Beckley, the owner of the Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park, said it was never a bother until Rocky Mountain Industrials proposed to expand its operations from 15.7 acres to 321.
“We can live with their current operation at 20 trucks a day. We can't live with an operation going to 600 trucks a day,” Beckley said. “Would Glenwood still be a major tourist destination with all these trucks going through town and the noise, the train running 24 hours a day? I think our numbers are going to decline significantly.”
According to their official expansion proposal to the Bureau of Land Management, if Rocky Mountain Industrials were to grow its operations, a fleet of 20-30 trucks would make roughly 20 round-trips a day from the quarry, traveling through town down to the railyard.
Beckley said that increased traffic, noise and dust from the expanded operations is enough to drive the tourists away from town.
“I don't know any tourism towns that want to switch from tourism and go into mining,” he said. “We've had tourism here for 125 years, it's just such a short-sighted thing to bring in a mine of this caliber right next door to the city limits of a thriving tourist destination.”
Protecting the city’s tourism is one reason why the community started the Glenwood Springs Citizens' Alliance in 2018. The 501c3 non-profit organization was set up to directly fight Rocky Mountain Industrials’ expansion proposal to ensure Glenwood Springs’ remains a thriving tourist destination. It has support from nearly every local government in the Roaring Fork Valley and endorsements from more than 2,800 community members and 310 businesses.
“Certainly the realities of our economy, of the coronavirus and other factors have changed how we can engage, but our mission has remained constant and trying to educate and make people aware as to what's being proposed and how they can become involved and engaged when the time comes,” Jeff Peterson, the president of the Glenwood Springs Citizens' Alliance, said.
Peterson, who was born and raised in Glenwood Springs and is raising his own family in the area, said stopping RMI from expanding its operations is about maintaining the city’s charm for generations to come.
“I think it changes the face of Glenwood and, in my perspective, moves it much further from the tourism community to a production type community and industrialization of it,” Peterson said.
The Glenwood Springs Citizens' Alliance is more than a group posting signs around town and showing up at public comment sessions at the Bureau of Land Management. The group filed a lawsuit that is still making its way through the courts against the federal agency in March 2020 claiming the BLM is failing to properly regulate Rocky Mountain Industrials’ mining activities at the Mid-Continent Quarry. According to the alliance’s website, they claim RMI is extracting and selling common variety limestone, which they do not have a permit for, and that the BLM is failing to regulate those unpermitted activities. Garfield County filed a motion in May 2020 to intervene in the case and it was granted in November.
City officials have also been working alongside the Glenwood Springs Citizens' Alliance to help put a stop to the expansion. The City of Glenwood Springs launched its own million-dollar advocacy campaign named “Don’t Strip Glenwood” for what the mayor of the city called “war” against Rocky Mountain Industrials.
“The city of Glenwood Springs has been a tourist community since it was founded. It's part of the city's DNA. It is who we are in many ways,” Debora Figueroa, the city manager of Glenwood Springs, said. “We did take a large hit to our tourism base this year, and we do think the mine expanding to that degree would indeed severely hurt our tourism industry.”
The concern around what Rocky Mountain Industrials’ expansion proposal could do to the city’s tourism economy has been hypothetical as the Bureau of Land Management continues to conduct studies and gear up for the Environmental Impact Statement. Though, the pandemic shutting the doors of local small businesses and limiting tourism has given the Glenwood Springs community a chance to glimpse at what life could be like if RMI were to expand its operations.
According to Figueroa, downtown business sales were down by 27% in 2020 in Glenwood Springs, mainly because of the pandemic throughout the year and the Grizzly Creek Fire in August.
“I think it was very telling to see businesses closed and pretty much the streets rolled up, if you would...and that could be a huge indicator of what is to come if this expansion project goes forward,” Lisa Langer, the director of tourism promotion at Visit Glenwood, said. “We were hit hard with COVID as many communities throughout the state and country...but when you rely on tourism for your economics and your base, it really is telling when you don’t have it.”
She said the tourism economy could be similarly impacted, or even worse, if RMI’s expansion proposal is approved.
“We're talking about leveling a mountain in order to extract the kind of materials that they're saying that they want to get out of there,” Langer said. “So I just can't imagine how it would affect residents, how it would affect, you know, tourists, how it would affect...people who are here trying to make a living.”
Rocky Mountain Industrials’ CEO Brian Fallin said the company understands the communities concerns when it comes to the tourism impacts. He said they are going through the proper processes with the Bureau of Land Management, and other regulatory bodies, to ensure those concerns are mitigated.
“We have to exercise patience, not only with the local community and everything that's going on, but with the process itself, the BLM process, all of the different studies and surveys that have to be done, it takes time,” Fallin said. “So we are willing and we're up to taking the time and energy to do it the right way, legally and otherwise.”
He said if the expansion proposal is approved, RMI will have to work with Garfield County and Glenwood Springs to regulate certain things, like fleet traffic through town. Fallin said the company has tried to sit down and talk with county and city officials, but they are not interested in hearing RMI’s plans.
“We have yet to have any, really, any productive conversation with them on those fronts,” Fallin said. “I would be happy to sit down and discuss the opportunity, but up until now, it's been very much just, no, kind of a hard no, quite frankly, that there is no tolerance, no room, no want to find that middle ground.”
As the Glenwood Springs Citizens' Alliance’s lawsuit plays out in court against Rocky Mountain Industrials and the Bureau of Land Management continues to conduct studies and prepare for the EIS, Jeff Peterson said there is still a lot of work to do and it will take a community effort to get it done.
“I would say that our group, the city and the county are in a much better position than we were two years ago,” Peterson wrote in an email to Aspen Public Radio. “But it’s going to take continued involvement and community participation to stop this from becoming a reality.”
The Environment Foundation, funded by the employees of Aspen Skiing Company, made the series "Digging Deep: What Does RMI Mean For Glenwood Springs?" possible through a grant to Aspen Public Radio.
Pueden encontrar la versión en español aqui.