That's a big concern for Superiorites. Oak Flat is managed by the Forest Service and protected by an executive order from President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Generations of locals have used the area as a picnic ground, campground and a place for teenagers to party. Rock climbers cherish it as a world-class bouldering area and a base camp for climbing Queen Creek's cliffs. Meanwhile, the neighboring San Carlos Apache Tribe considers Oak Flat significant both culturally and religiously. The San Carlos Apaches, supported by other Apaches and tribes as far away as the Hopi, have helped stall Resolution's attempt to broker a land swap. The company wants to exchange various land in the region, including valuable riparian tracts along the imperiled San Pedro River, for Oak Flat.
"Our families have been using Oak Flat campground for 80 years," says Avenvano, who is opposed to the land exchange. "There was never any reason for the mine to bother the ground."
It's not just the physical process that bothers those who are ambivalent about mining's return. It's also the rapid pace with which it will occur.
The stately architecture and distinctive culture of the Superiors, Silvertons, Buttes and Bisbees of the West sprang from a slower-paced style of mining, notes Ray Rasker, an economist and Executive Director of Headwaters Economics. "Mining today is at a much faster pace and a much larger scale," he says. "As a result, there is not a long-term investment in the communities, so you don't get the architecture and the culture and the sense of place."
Avenvano puts it in starker terms: "They'll bring in
their own people, mine it all out, and leave."
Roy Chavez is a third-generation Superiorite who's done his time in the mines: He's worked underground and in open pits, for several different companies. Now he owns My Friends Tavern. He's a strong advocate for mining law reform and is an Arizona contact for Earthworks, a mining watchdog group.
"It's not that people don't want mining back," says Chavez, hunkered over a table on his bar's patio. "The thing is, our economy has always been one horse: copper mining." Chavez points out that during the mine's downtimes over the past two decades, the town has made some progress toward diversifying its economy. A new mine, he worries, could threaten that progress.
After the 1982 shutdown, Superior used grants, state and federal funding and land donations from the mining company to build a new park system, high school, swimming pool and fire station. An industrial park, funded in part by the federal Economic Development Administration, sits on the edge of town, not far from the old mine works. There's a health-care clinic in town and an ambulance service. There's even community-wide wireless Internet. Big-city refugees escape to the Boyce Thompson Arboretum, on the edge of town, which was established by a mining baron in the 1920s.
Some would argue that Superior has progressed because mining was gone. Census figures for a variety of former mining towns, especially those in scenic or recreationally rich areas, show that, as long as mining was the major industry, the population remained fairly stable and property values stayed level. As soon as the mines shut down, the population plummeted and property values sank. In Superior, for example, houses were sold as "two-for-ones." Optimistic investors could pick up houses for next to nothing in tax sales or just by taking over someone's payments.
But wait a decade, and things tend to change dramatically. The population slump reverses itself as amenity migrants "discover" the former mining towns, with their historic buildings and scenic surroundings. The old mining shacks become quaint Victorian cottages for artists, urban escapees and second-home owners. Once-smoky bars begin to welcome newcomers who drink imported beers or even, God forbid, microbrews. And, almost invariably, property values come to far exceed those of the mining era. It's happened in Colorado to the extreme (Telluride, Breckenridge) and less extreme (Silverton, Rico); and it's happened in Arizona, in places like Bisbee. Superior seems to be next.
Now, some of those same towns are suddenly being whacked with plans to bring back mining. The long-lost ex-lover has returned with a vengeance. Bisbee, now a tourist and artists' getaway near the Mexican border, is torn by a plan to reopen the huge pit mine right outside town. South of Tucson, a Canadian company is hoping to start an open-pit mine in the hills of the Santa Rita Mountains. The locals, concerned about environmental and social impacts, are doing their best to stop it. And just outside Crested Butte, Colo., a ski town that gave up mining years ago, a company wants to open a molybdenum mine. By and large, the locals are horrified at the prospect.
It leads to the question: Can a mining town and amenity migrant town be one and the same? "Ideally, that would be the situation," says Rasker. "The question really is, can you have one industry operating in a way that doesn't foreclose opportunities for another industry?" In Silverton, where a small company hopes to eventually reopen a mill and mines, or in Bisbee, the lack of affordable housing hampers the prospects for a mining comeback; in Butte, says Rasker, the gaping and toxic Berkeley Pit "will forever be a detriment to that community diversifying."