Twenty-five abandoned mines on the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway between Silverton and Lake City will be closed this fall in an effort to protect curious minds from wandering in and possibly getting hurt.
“The Alpine Loop is a highly traveled route that’s becoming more and more popular every year,” said Tara Tafi, a senior project manager for the Department of Reclamation, Mining and Safety’s inactive mines program. “We want to make sure they’re protected.”
The Alpine Loop is a 65-mile scenic, four-wheel-drive mountainous route around Lake City, Ouray and Silverton that passes some of Colorado’s largest towering peaks, as well as numerous ghost towns and historic mining sites.
But in recent years, with the rising popularity of off-road vehicles, more people are headed to the backcountry, and as a natural consequence, there’s an increased chance of people getting into trouble.
The Bureau of Land Management estimated more than 400,000 people visit the loop – only accessible in the summer months – every year.
Agencies have collaborated to close an estimated 900 abandoned mines over the past 30 years in and around the Alpine Loop area, Tafi said.
The project this fall, headed by the Department of Mining, Reclamation and Safety and BLM, is a continuation of that work.
“We’ve been working in that area for a long time,” Tafi said.
The high country of the San Juan Mountains was heavily mined in the late 1800s and into the mid-1900s. The towns of Silverton and Ouray were founded to support the mining.
But after mining tampered off and was no longer profitable, miners left behind untold numbers of holes in the ground. A survey in 1977 estimated there was about 24,000 abandoned mines in the state of Colorado.
Many of these sites have fallen into disrepair, with shafts collapsing and unstable adits.
Since 2010, an estimated 71 people have died across the country in abandoned mine accidents, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Deaths are usually caused by drowning, ATV crashes and falls.
From 2001 to 2017, five people died in abandoned mine accidents in Colorado.
“Abandoned mines can be very dangerous, and the public should not enter them,” said Stuart Schneider with the BLM. “Mine ceilings and walls can collapse, timbers can fail, there are deep pits, stopes or holes that the public can fall into, and there are toxic atmospheres and water hazards, too.”
The Department of Mining, Reclamation and Safety in 1977 started closing mine portals to prevent death and injuries. Since then, the department, along with other partner agencies, has closed an estimated 10,000 mines in the state.
“We close about 300 open mines a year,” Tafi said. “And our work is still not done.”
Abandoned mine closures usually involve backfilling or plugging an entrance to a mine, Schneider said. Access to many of the sites is by foot or air to reduce the impacts to the high tundra.
Special attention is given to mines that also serve as habitat for bats, Tafi said. If bats are found living in a mine, a special grate that allows them to enter and exit the mine will be installed, Tafi said.
About half of the 25 sites on the Alpine Loop mine closure project this fall are home to bat populations.
“Because bats play an important role in our ecosystem, we want them to continue using the mines,” she said. “We just want to make it safer for humans.”
She added: “Our goal is not to wipe away the mining history. It’s to allow people to view it and not get hurt.”
Bev Rich with the San Juan County Historical Society said there’s never been an issue between the mine closures and historic preservation. Rich, who was born and raised in Silverton, said it is never a good idea to enter an abandoned mine.
“Most people have been told by their parents, you don’t go into old mines,” Rich said. “That’s just the way it is.”
While closing abandoned mines is a goal of many local, state and federal agencies, funding is usually the determining factor on how many projects can get done in a year, with owners and any responsible parties long gone.
Tafi said mine closure projects in Colorado are funded by a variety of sources. One of the primary contributors is a fee on coal production, which brought in $3 million to the state last year.
In 2017, the Department of Mining, Reclamation and Safety closed 219 hazardous openings statewide at the cost of around $1.1 million. And, the state spent more than $4 million in construction projects.
The project this fall on the Alpine Loop will cost about $60,000 – a 50-50 split between the state and the BLM.
“BLM is working to complete closures within a quarter mile of roads and trails as a priority over the last few years,” Schneider said. “There are hundreds of mine openings … and it will take a number of years to close them. This is dependent upon future funding as well.”
Next year, two projects around Lake City, Ouray and Silverton will close another 40 or so abandoned mines, Tafi said. More attention is being drawn to this area as it becomes more popular.
“In the early years of this program, we focused on mine closures around towns,” she said. “But we’re working out from those areas. People are venturing further and further into the backcountry, and so are we.”