Small mountain hamlet to remain resort-free, for now
NEWS: Atlantic Richfield Co. purchased more than 1,000 acres of patented mining claims and other properties from Arizona-based Disposition Properties in and around Rico, dimming the threat of massive development.
CONTEXT: I’ve long been intrigued by Rico, a former mining town of about 300 people in the San Juan Mountains. On paper, Rico looks a lot like Silverton: It was platted in the 1870s on Ute land as a mining hub and flourished during its early years. It sits at about 9,000 feet in elevation, surrounded by high mountains; and it was serviced by a railroad built by Otto Mears.
Yet Rico, just 20 miles as the crow flies from Silverton, ultimately followed a far different trajectory. The 1893 Silver Panic hit both towns hard, but Silverton ultimately recovered, and its mining industry continued to support a fairly healthy population until the early 1990s. Rico, not so much – the population in 1890 was about 4,000; by 1900, it had shrunk to 811 and continued to ebb, bottoming out at just 75 in 1980.
Mining in Rico didn’t collapse after the Silver Panic by any means. Throughout the decades, big and little firms gouged and tunneled, drilled and blasted, stoped and mucked, milled and smelted in the mountains around Rico. Sulfide-bearing iron pyrite – the active ingredient in acid mine drainage – is abundant here. So much so that in the 1950s the Rico-Argentine Mining Co. and Vanadium Corp. of America began mining pyrite to produce sulphuric acid, which was used mainly for uranium processing at mills in surrounding lowlands. In 1980, Anaconda, a subsidiary of Atlantic Richfield, bought the Rico Argentine site and surrounding lands with an eye toward molybdenum mining but never actually pulled any ore out of the ground.
All of the mining activity permanently scarred the land, sullied the waters of the Dolores River, which passes through town, and contaminated town soils with lead. But it was never enough to revive the town’s early glory. Rico lost the Dolores County seat to the powerful Dove Creek pinto bean and grange lobby in the 1940s, and the Rio Grande Southern railroad abandoned the community shortly thereafter.
Silverton, meanwhile, held onto its branch of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad, helping it to become the backdrop of many a mid-century Western film and a major tourist attraction. Despite its scenic location, mining history and proximity to public lands, Rico never developed a strong tourist economy – perhaps by design. In 1990, Silverton’s population was about 800; Rico’s was roughly one-eighth of that. But what Rico lacked in economic development it made up for with a rough and rustic charm.
Over the years, various entities have hatched economic development schemes there. In the 1980s, the Rico Development Corp. bought most of the Anaconda/Atlantic Richfield land and other property, compiling 1,800 acres of patented mining claims and hundreds of in-town lots. Real estate developer Rico Renaissance acquired the land in the mid-1990s and worked with Rico officials to come up with a grand plan to revive, spiff-up and build out the infrastructure needed to substantially grow the old mining town. Meanwhile, economic exiles from Telluride – 26 miles and one mountain pass away – began moving in and opening a few businesses.
Rico Renaissance’s plans fell apart in 2007, and they tried to sell the land to Bolero Mining, which wanted to build a molybdenum mine nearby. The effort failed, in part because the global financial crisis diminished demand for minerals, in part because opening a new mine in this day and age ain’t easy.
In 2011, the EPA ordered Atlantic Richfield to clean up the Rico-Argentine Mine site just north of town. It had been oozing high concentrations of zinc and other heavy metals into the Dolores River since the mid-1990s. The company has spent at least $63 million on the effort so far, even though it never made any money off of the property.
What was left of Rico Renaissance became Disposition Properties, which continued to toy with developing the properties but never progressed far. Meanwhile, Rico’s population has continued to grow, albeit slowly, and real estate prices have climbed.
There are no homes in Rico listed for sale on Zillow, just a couple of lots priced around $200,000. But a 12-bedroom log-cabin monstrosity a handful of miles downriver from town is priced at $2.95 million. Still, the place isn’t what I’d call gentrified; it retains its small-town funkiness. I passed through there last Fourth of July and was delighted to see the aftermath of a down-home parade and a few dozen folks milling about the sidewalks eating burgers (as opposed to the thousands that mob Silverton on the Fourth).
Last April, Disposition threw in the towel and put 181 parcels covering 1,146 acres on the market for $10 million. Telluride Properties, the listing agent, marketed the property – and its potential – aggressively. It touted geothermal properties (hot springs resort), space for 300 new homes, potential for a land swap with the Forest Service, a parcel for a riverside lodge, and so on. It even suggested the possibility of building a chairlift, perhaps to access a Silverton Mountain-esque backcountry ski area. It did not mention the Superfund site or lead contamination; lack of infrastructure; floodplains and other geologic hazards; or Rico’s 2004 master plan objective of avoiding a “predominant resort character.”
Many locals were not amused. A resort and hundreds of new homes would certainly bring jobs and money to the area, but it would also completely overwhelm the existing community and smother its scrappy spirit. Rico townsfolk only needed to look around the region to see that amenity-economy-based prosperity has its downsides, ranging from housing crises to the widening abyss between the ultra-wealthy and everyone else.
Rico still may get gentrified, but the threat of it becoming a glitzy destination resort appears to have subsided. On April 5, the Dolores County clerk recorded a real property transfer and a special warranty deed conveying dozens of Disposition Properties’ parcels to Atlantic Richfield. While the property transfer remains under wraps – it’s labeled “sensitive” – the warranty deed includes a list of what appears to be all of Disposition’s remaining properties. The transfer fee is listed as $778.94, indicating that the sale price was about $7.79 million.
I wasn’t able to get in touch with anyone at Atlantic Richfield – now the valley’s largest landowner – about the purchase. I can rest assured, however, that they aren’t going to be building a Rico Mountain mega-resort. Rico Town Manager Chauncey McCarthy said the mining company likely will hold onto contaminated and mining-impacted claims in order to remediate and reclaim them (which is probably why they bought the property in the first place). They may sell off other parcels and have expressed an interest in working with the town to make use of the in-town properties. The Montezuma Land Conservancy reportedly wanted to buy the property and put conservation easements on some parcels while possibly building affordable housing on others. Those kinds of scenarios seem far more likely.
Rico, undoubtedly, will continue to grow. But what that growth looks like and how fast it will occur seems to be far more within the control of the community and its residents.
The Land Desk is a newsletter from Jonathan P. Thompson, author of “River of Lost Souls,” “Behind the Slickrock Curtain” and “Sagebrush Empire.” To subscribe, go to: www.landdesk.org.