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Tearing down walls, opening doors

by Curtis Wackerle, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

Eleven men who normally live behind the walls of the Buena Vista Correctional Facility spent three nights camping last week near the headwaters of Lincoln Creek, working for the U.S. Forest Service to demolish abandoned cabins around the site of the historic Ruby mining outpost.

The convicts were part of a heavy-equipment crew with Colorado Correctional Industries — among the most coveted jobs inside the prison. To qualify, inmates must meet disciplinary-record benchmarks and be nearing their expected release date. After a vigorous selection process, they began working together in March inside the prison’s shop, building the kiosks ubiquitous at trailheads. Last week’s was one of many projects the CCI crew will complete this summer outside on public lands.

Trust is apparent in the effort. Four crew bosses oversaw this week’s project and made sure everyone was accounted for, but there was no need for armed guards above 11,000 feet with jagged ridgelines on three sides, and an hour’s drive down a bumpy jeep road just to reach the junction of Lincoln Creek and Highway 82. The big security concern on Wednesday was whether a black bear that sauntered through camp the night before would return.

“It’s a privilege,” Ikxander Figueroa, part of the offender crew, said of the opportunity to take part in such work. “You have to treat it with respect.”

Standing next to a backhoe used to demolish an abandoned cabin on an unpatented mining claim, Figueroa, who’s been locked up for nearly a decade, noted that people pay good money to acquire skills they have learned through the program. He touted the master’s degree in construction management he has earned behind bars. Just because you’re down doesn’t mean you can’t get your life together, he said.

The work the Forest Service contracts with CCI to complete often falls under the auspices of the Abandoned Mine Lands project. It can be hard and hazardous, sometimes involving plugging old mine shafts. Referencing a scenario where a team member is roped up as a safety precaution while working around mine tunnels and caves, Figueroa said that if you can’t trust the guy on the other end of the rope, he shouldn’t be out there.

A particularly grueling task as part of this summer’s work program involved hiking 80-pound bags of sandcrete three-quarters of a mile up a steep trail to reach the entrance to the Hubbard Cave near Glenwood Springs. The Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the White River National Forest installed a grate there, across the cave’s entrance to protect a threatened bat species. Each man made about 20 trips, the inmates said.

Three of the convicts spoken with last week oozed positivity as they hauled pieces of the cabin 100 yards to a truck, which would make the four-and-a-half-hour round trip to the Pitkin County Landfill to deposit the debris.

Anthony Utterback said he joined the crew to “better myself.” Learning a trade represents a path forward, away from a criminal life that kept him behind bars for most of the past 20 years, he said.

Being outside in the stunning natural surroundings is “wonderful and surreal,” Utterback said. Once he’s free he said he’d like to return to the area for a camping trip with his family.

“This opens your eyes to having a life,” he said. “It makes you feel like a human” and not a prisoner.

Taking a deep breath and a look around, Figueroa said his time at the Ruby worksite feels like the closest thing to being home.

Prospectors’ paradise or plight

Ruby is in a corner of the Roaring Fork watershed so remote that in its early-1900s heyday, the easiest way to get there was over Red Mountain Pass, a mule path over the Continental Divide to the east that drops into Peekaboo Gulch, the south fork of Lake Creek and eventually Twin Lakes.

In the decades after Aspen’s silver crash, Ruby remained a viable mining district thanks to the high-grade ore found there, which gives the hillsides, from which lead, silver and gold were extracted, a rust color.

Federal policy dating to the 1870s encouraged miners to come West and stake a claim. The winning lottery ticket of the day was to strike good ore and patent the claim, meaning the land became your private property. Existing patented claims in the Ruby area include functional cabins still in use as getaways.

There are many more unpatented claims where prospectors tried to make a go of it. Many include cabins. While some of those structures are restored, others are left to deteriorate, maintaining the connection with the land’s history for those who visit today.

Cabin building continued in the valley into the mid-20th century, and the more recent structures appear to be more ramshackle than their predecessors.

Tim Cooney/Special to the Aspen Daily NewsOne of the cabins before it was demolished last week at the Ruby site.

They present temptation for squatters and could contain dangerous trash, as well as hantavirus from accumulated rodent droppings. Aspen-Sopris district ranger Karen Schroyer earlier this summer announced a decision to demolish eight such “unauthorized structures” around Aspen, describing them as a “physical hazard to the public.” Three are in the Ruby zone.

A cultural resource report “determined that none of these structures are eligible for listing on the state and national register of historic places due to lack of integrity, unimportance and difficulty establishing a clear historical association with each site.

“I do, however, feel that there is historic value to some of these structures and have decided to leave a trace of historic building components, if possible, for gradual deterioration so visitors can enjoy and ponder the local history while visiting their public lands,” Schroyer wrote in her June 22 decision memo.

The Columbine Cabin, which crews were picking apart on Wednesday, was a total demolition. At best guess, the most recent regular occupants of the cabin stopped visiting 20 years ago or more. A plaque near the cabin, placed on the side of another, older partial structure that has been left to deteriorate, explains how the claim dates to 1902. John Nichols, “a pioneer Missouri zinc miner,” as well as family and friends, would spend the next 30 years prospecting the area each summer, the plaque says. Until 1920, they walked in over Red Mountain Pass with horses carrying an entire summer’s worth of supplies.

In 1921, Nichols’ grandson “D.E. Flatt drove the first car into Lincoln Gulch, a Model-T Ford, one day required from Twin Lakes over Independence Pass to gulch entrance and one day to make the 11 long miles up Lincoln Gulch,” the plaque says. The marker, the date of which is uncertain, lists David E. Flatt of Grand Junction as the manager of the claim.

It’s likely that Mr. Flatt’s children and grandchildren eventually lost interest in prospecting, and the cabin fell into disrepair. It’s now the Forest Service’s responsibility.

Two of the cabins near Ruby were torn down last week. A third cabin, located just off the trail to Andersen and Petroleum lakes, is slated for demolition, but the Forest Service must first hire a contractor to perform asbestos abatement. The demolition is unlikely to occur until next summer.

With the cabins removed, the CCI crews next week will plant native grass seedlings, which were started in a Forest Service nursery, in and around their footprints.

A fortunate partnership

Olivia Garcia, an environmental engineer who is the White River’s coordinator for the Abandoned Mine Lands project, is responsible for bringing in contractors to perform the needed work. She has partnered with CCI over the past three years on numerous projects and said “their quality of work is outstanding.”

She looks to CCI, which is a division of the Colorado Department of Corrections, for labor-intensive projects in remote areas. Contracting fees with the not-for-profit agency are a fraction of what they would be for a non-inmate crew — “their charge to us is just the sustainability of the program,” Garcia said.

The inmates who participate in the program change each year but the crew bosses remain the same, she said.

“They are the unsung heroes,” Garcia said, because they train a new group of men every year but manage to put out the same consistent quality of work.

She said she’s proud to be involved in a program that has been shown to reduce recidivism.

“I feel very fortunate to partner with these people because it’s good to be part of something that positive,” Garcia said.

Andrew Dalton, the Canon City-based supervisor with CCI who was onsite Wednesday, seconded that the program is about more than learning construction skills. It’s just as much about building confidence, socially and organizationally, that will help the men lead productive lives on the outside.

After being released the inmates may head to a halfway house near Denver where the construction job training continues. Alumni of the program who are “off paper” — meaning they’ve completed all parole and probationary requirements — often stay involved, attending reunion barbecues.

There is always a risk when dealing with convicts, Dalton said — “No one goes to prison for singing too loud in church” — but the program’s ethos is to treat the men like regular employees with clear expectations. Most would never consider risking the trust placed in them, the consequences of which could include spending more time in prison.

“They still have to be counted, but we treat them like employees,” he said.

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