There’s not much to like about gravel quarries, essential as they are to regional economies throughout America. We need construction aggregate to build and maintain highways and railroad beds and to construct commercial and residential buildings.
Quarries must be ready to supply scores, even hundreds of customers on a daily or weekly basis. Aggregate has to be mined, crushed, graded and delivered by truck to many different locations.
How much aggregate do we need in El Paso County? Twenty years ago, the El Paso County master plan for mineral extraction estimated annual consumption of 8.5 tons per person for the decades to come, translating to about 5.4 million tons this year.
Operating quarries within El Paso County can’t supply the demand, which is currently being met by Fremont County mines.
Do we need a new quarry, one located closer to Colorado Springs, with sufficient capacity to supply regional needs for decades to come? Transit Mix Concrete is pursuing just such a plan, one that would transform a historic ranch south of Colorado Springs into an open-pit mine.
Homeowners in the area have joined together to oppose the plan. At their invitation, I toured the quarry site and adjacent properties.
About a dozen miles south of Colorado Springs, Little Turkey Creek flows down a narrow, forested canyon, emerging from the foothills at the Hitch Rack Ranch. A working ranch since the 1800s, the 1,200-acre property is remarkably pristine, a key part of a unique regional ecosystem. It’s bounded by Bureau of Land Management and privately owned ranch land to the north, by Colorado Highway 115 to the east and by the Nature Conservancy’s Aiken Canyon preserve and the Ingersoll Ranch to the south.
“The road’s a little rough,” said Tom Fellows as we turned off on Little Turkey Creek Road, “so hang on!”
As we entered the canyon, the road quickly became a marginal 4-wheeler track, a challenge even for Fellows’ sturdy Land Cruiser. Steep granite walls enclosed a remarkable Front Range canyon landscape. A clear, willow-bordered mountain stream flows through mixed conifers, cottonwoods and meadows. We stopped after a mile or so.
“This would be the quarry floor,” said Warren Dean, “just rock and crushers — that hillside, those cliffs, all the forest — gone.”
Butterflies flitted around us. A checkerspot, probably Euphydryas anicia, landed on the damp ground next to us, while a couple of fritillaries glided above the willows.
Somehow, I thought of the indomitable Augusta Tabor who took a team of oxen up Ute Pass to South Park in 1860.
“We lingered where Manitou now stands for a week,” she wrote decades later, “the men doing a little prospecting and working on a new road over the Ute Pass. We made such slow progress that every evening we could look back and see the smoke from the campfire of the previous evening.”
More than 150 years after Tabor drove her oxen through the wilderness, a similarly untouched landscape endures a few miles to the south.
Tabor and her successors saw the West as a hostile wilderness, a place to be tamed, exploited and civilized, not a treasure in itself. That belief lingers in today’s gravel miners.
Yet the canyon and adjacent lands are treasures that need to be preserved and protected.
“The [quarry] site contains numerous and diverse conservation values,” wrote Scott Anderson in a formal statement by the Nature Conservancy. “It is our conclusion that development of a quarry in the proposed location would irreparably impact globally imperiled and globally vulnerable conservation values.”
A land-use map shows the Hitch Rack Ranch as an essential component in a “large, connected landscape” that the “Conservancy and partners have worked to preserve for more than two decades.”
That landscape includes critical habitat for multiple threatened and endangered species and is home to more than 100 species of birds, as well as mule deer, elk, bobcat, mountain lions, black bear, gray foxes and badgers.
It’s hard to imagine a more inappropriate site for a quarry. The El Paso County Commissioners, who traditionally have taken pro–property rights, business friendly, laissez faire positions, will eventually decide the question.
In this case, they’ll have to decide whether injecting a disruptive industrial use into a long-established ranching, residential and conservationist community is really a simple matter of property rights.
“We have property rights too,” said resident Warren Dean. “There are about 1,700 residents in developments near the quarry, and some of us have been here since the 1970s. Do our property rights mean nothing?”