Since its inception in 1991, the Crested Butte Land Trust has prioritized the preservation of and public access to the Lower Loop area, one of Crested Butte’s most important and popular trail systems on public lands. The Lower Loop area, which is composed of 193 acres, provides opportunities for bikers, hikers, and skiers.
Beginning in the Town of Crested Butte, the Lower Loop trail system runs past Peanut Lake, through Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands, and eventually to the Land Trust’s Gunsight Bridge parcel, Oh-Be-Joyful Campground near the Raggeds Wilderness, and beyond. The main “wide path” trail is built for wheelchairs, hand cycles, strollers, and people of all ages and athletic abilities. Along this path, visitors will also enjoy the StoryWalk™, a summertime partnership between the Land Trust and Old Rock Library.
The Crested Butte Land Trust purchased the land required to create the Lower Loop trail system in two transactions, the first in 1998 and the second in 1999. In addition to private donations, funding from the Town of Crested Butte, Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Gunnison County Land Preservation Board, Great Outdoors Colorado, and 1% for Open Space helped make these purchases possible. The Land Trust then donated a conservation easement to the Town of Crested Butte, allowing public access to the area in perpetuity.
After the purchases were complete, over 165 community members came together in the summer of 1999 to build the trails we all love and know as the Lower Loop. Thanks to this incredible collaboration, the Crested Butte Land Trust received an award of excellence for this project from the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, now known as Keep It Colorado.
But all wasn’t well in Paradise. To access the recently opened Lower Loop Trail, you had to cross through toxic mining waste left from the Peanut Mine. Back in the mining days this was the stage of a roaring operation: a railroad track blazed down the southern shore of Peanut Lake, coal was stacked and loaded into train cars, and silver ore was milled just below, producing oozing pools of bright orange sludge. It was quite the scene, and none of the waste was cleaned up when the mine closed in the 1970’s. Fast forward thirty years, and folks kept a close watch on their children and dogs as they passed Peanut Lake along the Lower Loop Trail, and ranchers didn’t let their cattle graze the area. In the summer of 2000, the coal and silver ore next to the Lower Loop Trail spontaneously combusted, and the community knew that enough was enough. Something had to be done.
Sandy Allen Leinsdorf grew up on a ranch outside of Crested Butte where her family has been raising cattle since the late 1800’s. Talking to Sandy, you can tell she has fierceness behind her convictions. She was the president of the Land Trust on the day the coal and silver ore caught fire, and with the strength of the entire community behind her, Sandy led the Land Trust board in cleaning up the Peanut Mine.
The plan was straight-forward. A layered combination of limestone, coal, and silver refuse, and an earthen cap could reclaim the mine, and water would be cleaned as it trickled down through the limestone. About 50,000 cubic yards of coal and silver waste were cleaned up, the equivalent of more than 3,000 dump trucks full. Top soil was added, and the community showed up to plant native trees and shrubs on the restored land. Aforementioned Land Trust co-founder, John Hess, has spent nearly every summer’s day since the completion of restoration voluntarily watering and caring for those plants, pulling noxious weeds and generally working to ensure the site is restored to a natural state.
You can still see the damage from the mine, and some of it lies unseen in the lake itself – lining waste in the form of heavy metals still rests at the bottom of Peanut Lake. Though these deposits pose limited danger if undisturbed, there is concern that heavy metals from Peanut Lake could leach into the Slate River in the event that the land separating the lake and the river is breached. To address this concern, the Land Trust re-aligned the course of the Slate River as it passes Peanut Lake to bolster and reinforce the land barrier between the two. Following the re-alignment, Land Trust staff implemented a comprehensive monitoring plan prescribed by the Army Corps of Engineers to track river channel morphology, bank stability, and vegetation cover on the newly constructed river banks and floodplain.
Annual monitoring of the Peanut Mine restoration work indicates success – the land barrier remains stable, natural seasonal water flows appear functional, and native vegetation is recolonising disturbed areas. This ongoing work will help prevent erosion, remediate contaminants, and re-establish wildlife habitats while ensuring that heavy metal residues remain safely contained at the bottom of Peanut Lake.
The Lower Loop area, with Peanut Lake at its start, is a community treasure. Not only is the Lake, with Paradise Divide in the background, one of our more beloved views, it and the Slate River provide a unique wetland habitat for a diverse community of plants and wildlife, from lush wildflowers, to Great Blue Heron fledglings and bugling elk. These 40+ acres of wetlands are an essential part of our local ecosystem, particularly in the face of expansive loss of wetlands and freshwater lakes throughout the country. With your help and support, the Land Trust will continue to care for this beloved system of trails, the wetlands surrounding them, and the Slate River for generations to come.
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