The ruddy slopes of 12,392-foot Mount Emmons loom over this town, drawing hikers, backcountry skiers and snowshoers. But to residents such as Jim Starr, they also stand for what is wrong with the nation's antiquated mining laws.
One of those laws allowed the Bush administration to sell 155 acres of public land on the "Red Lady" to a mining company for less than $900. The land has deposits of molybdenum, a gray metal used to make steel, alloys and lubricants.
"It's a huge threat. If anyone did put a mine in there, it's hard to imagine that it would not destroy this area," said Starr, a lawyer and Democratic chairman of Gunnison County's board of commissioners.
The sale was made possible by an 1872 mining law that lets the government sell, for $2.50 or $5 an acre, public land that contain minerals. This land sale, known as a patent, gives companies absolute title to the property.
Since October 1994, Congress has voted each year to renew a temporary ban that prevents companies from submitting new patent applications to buy more government land at rock-bottom prices.
That left the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management with 405 applications it had received before October 1994. Those applications came from companies looking to buy land managed by the BLM and the Forest Service.
John Leshy, who approved 68 of those patents as the Interior Department's top lawyer during the Clinton administration, said the law requires the government to give land away needlessly. "The mining law was a cover for getting the land for nonmining purposes like hunting, fishing, brothels or a saloon. I don't think people need incentives to settle the West any longer," said Leshy, a University of California law professor and author of "The Mining Law."
The Bush administration and Congress have made a push to approve the remaining applications -- approximately 200 -- that were unresolved when President Bush took office. Under the Bush administration, 139 have been approved and 50 remain to be considered.
The BLM's deputy director, Jim Hughes, said the patents convey property rights but not a free pass to disregard environmental laws. He said private investment, mostly in the rural West, provides good jobs, but he acknowledged that some oppose mining because of legitimate aesthetic values.
"As always, the BLM is sort of caught between the two, and we have to make decisions on those competing interests," he said. "At the end of the day, we are told to follow the law. It's not an easy choice."
Getting a patent is not easy. Slightly more than a third of the 405 applications were withdrawn or rejected by the Bush and Clinton administrations, often for lack of supporting paperwork.
Companies have to convince the Interior Department that the land has a valuable mineral deposit and that it can be mined at a profit. Department officials say companies typically spend about $10,000 to $15,000 per acre trying to document that it is economically viable to mine there.
Once a patent is granted, officials say, the law does not let them challenge a company if it drops its plan to mine at a site that could be resold as valuable real estate.
The department acknowledges cases in which parcels of land that companies had patented for mining were used for private, commercial development, such as at the ski resorts of Aspen, Breckendridge, Keystone and Telluride in Colorado and of Park City in Utah.
At Keystone, developers fetched $11,000 an acre in 1989 selling off more than a quarter of the 160 acres the government had sold. The land was never mined.
In Arizona, a Phoenix luxury hotel sits on 61 acres, part of an area that a businessman patented in 1970 for $153. He sold it to a developer for $400,000, plus a 1 percent share in future profits.
Congress has made numerous efforts to change the law, and even the National Mining Association is not a vigorous defender. Spokeswoman Carol Raulston said the trade group would support updating the law so companies pay "fair market value" for patents. But advocates of revising the law have been thwarted by those resisting an end to the free-access approach to public land upon which the nation was built.
The remaining applications, mostly in Nevada, Arizona, California and Montana, involve the sale of 71 square miles of federal land in 11 states for $130,000, according to Westerners for Responsible Mining, a coalition of 12 state and national conservation groups.
The land parcels' real value is $178 million, the coalition has estimated, based on figures from local assessors and real estate agents. About $85 million of that total is accounted for by just one parcel -- 3,000 acres near Arizona's popular Roosevelt Lake -- which could be sold for $8,500 per acre, the coalition said.
Other patents, the coalition said, would allow the sale of 995 acres of California's Inyo National Forest, worth $7.5 million, for $3,100; 673 acres of California's Mojave National Preserve, worth as much as $1 million, for $2,300; and 100 acres of Washington state's Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, worth as much as $937,000, for $470.
At Mount Emmons, it is unclear what will happen. Phoenix-based Phelps Dodge Corp. inherited the application from a company it acquired but has said in court documents that it wants to unload the property.