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A Colorado sacred site remains in limbo

BOULDER, Colo. – Valmont Butte, a site considered sacred by at least two Great Plains tribes, won’t be placed on the market by the city and recent negotiations with the nonprofit Trust for Public Lands have ended, leaving the landmark’s fate uncertain.

“We have no idea what they’re going to do with the butte,” said Lori Windle, co-chair of the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance, who said the City of Boulder apparently wants to avoid the costs associated with preparing the site for sale. “The Heritage Alliance’s mission is to try to preserve and protect this area – to keep reminding the city of the sacredness of the place.”

A city memorandum issued Jan. 9 recommends against any decision about the property’s future until environmental cleanup issues are more fully resolved.

Valmont Butte, isolated on the plains east of Boulder, was a place of importance to Cheyenne and Arapaho people, as well as to other tribes who lived or traveled in the area. In intervening years it has sustained industrial pollution including radioactive contamination.

Windle said recently-elected city officials seemed shocked at the dollars already spent on Valmont Butte and the additional amount that would have to be spent to clean it up before its sale.

“One idea is to put a solar farm up there to recover some of the dollars (the city) has put in it, but they would have to clean it up to sell it and it probably wasn’t worth it to sell at this point.”

The City of Boulder paid nearly $2.6 million for the 100-acre site in 2000 and since that time has spent at least $500,000 in cleanup costs with another $1 to $2 million estimated to complete environmental work, she said.

The city’s original plan was to devote part of the site for open space purposes, part to the construction of a fire training facility, and part to public works purposes, according to the city-prepared memorandum that recommended a hold on final decisions.

After it purchased the butte, the city raised the ire of some historians as well as Native interests when it proposed the fire training facility and a waste treatment plant at the butte, which houses an early pioneer cemetery, historic mill buildings, and the site of a contemporary sweat lodge, used in recent years.

After its initial plans were discarded, the city entered into negotiations to sell about 71 acres and maintain the rest as open space.

A potential buyer for the 71 acres was the Trust for Public Land, which had considered being an interim owner before transferring ownership to interested Indian tribes or organizations or to other potential purchasers. An option agreement with the trust expired without its exercising the interest, in part because of the high cost of finishing the city’s three-stage efforts at ridding the site of industrial tailings.

The remaining cleanup at the butte would cap contaminated soils that resulted from the processing of fluorspar, used to produce a material that serves a variety of industrial purposes but that also creates toxic by-products. Most of the tailings are associated with processing by Allied Chemical from 1941 to the 1970s, according to the city.

According to the city memorandum, contact has been made by the city with Honeywell, the successor to Allied Chemical, as a potential responsible party to assist voluntarily in remaining environmental cleanup, but if voluntary participation by Honeywell or others fails, “city-initiated litigation remains a possibility.”

The city may obtain funds from a federal program that can provide grants or loans to clean up areas where future use is complicated by contamination.

“The city should be sensitive to cultural resource and historic preservation issues while it owns and manages the land and should carefully consider those issues at such point as it contemplates selling the land in the future,” the memorandum states.

A major Arapaho settlement was located at a creek confluence near the butte and there were a number of historical ties of the Cheyenne and Arapaho to Boulder Valley.

Less memorably, on one side of the butte was said to have been a sod fort used by U.S. Army Col. John Chivington to train soldiers who later committed the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 in southeastern Colorado.

During the Heritage Alliance’s tribal consultation, requests were received that the land be preserved and allowed to heal, because “Valmont Butte has always been considered a sacred place, a place of prayer, contemplation and reverence for all life that surrounds it, and all that it provides for the people.”

Current environmental issues on the site “should be more fully resolved prior to any decision-making on the future disposition of the property,” the city concluded.