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Know the West

Pumice mine is a test case

  The U.S. Forest Service is suing an Arizona mining company for taking pumice from the San Francisco Peaks. If Tufflite Inc. loses, it could owe the government up to $300,000 for illegally mining on the Coconino National Forest northeast of Flagstaff.

The mining company insists it owes nothing because pumice is considered unique and therefore valuable, much like gold and diamonds, which can be pulled off public lands free of charge. In 1988, a Department of Interior judge ruled that chunks of pumice larger than three-quarters of an inch were rare and valuable, since nothing else could render stone-washed jeans so soft.

The Forest Service argues that much of the pumice Tufflite mined was smaller than that, too small for stone washing, and therefore considered a "common variety" mineral. The agency charges royalties for removing common variety minerals such as sand and gravel from public lands.

A District Court in Phoenix heard the case Nov. 16. "We're hoping it becomes a symbol of how environmentalists and Native Americans can come together to protect very sacred places like the Peaks," says Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club. "This mine is like tearing up the Sistine Chapel to get at the dirt."

The Forest Service plans to nominate the San Francisco Peaks as Traditional Cultural Property, which would protect the area under the National Historic Preservation Act. And last November, it proposed a 20-year withdrawal of the Peaks from mining. If approved, no new mining claims could be filed on the 74,380 acres encompassing the Peaks.

*Karen Mockler