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Know the West

Coalition ushers a mine off sacred ground

Agreement will fill a hole dug for the fashion industry


On the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, north of Flagstaff, Ariz., a pit 100 feet deep yields volcanic pumice, a soft rock used to give blue jeans the "stone-washed" look. For the last three years, a determined coalition led by the Sierra Club and 13 Native American tribes which hold the Peaks sacred have campaigned to stop a proposed expansion of Arizona Tufflite Inc." s White Vulcan Mine (HCN, 12/6/99: Pumice mine is a test case). On Aug. 28, their campaign ended in total victory.

At a ceremony next to the mine pit beneath drizzly skies, James Lyons, undersecretary of Agriculture, Mark Squillace of the Department of the Interior, and Douglas Martin, attorney for Arizona Tufflite Inc., signed an agreement to shut down the mine within six months and reclaim the 90-acre site over the next five years.

Tufflite will receive $1 million - once Congress appropriates the money - and will be allowed to remove pumice already stockpiled on the property for the next 10 years. Tufflite will also relinquish 49 mining claims in the area, covering 8,000 acres of land. For its part, the government will drop a lawsuit demanding $300,000 in unpaid royalties for pumice sold in recent years.

Credit for the mine closure went to Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, a native of Flagstaff, who visited the mine on April 25 and called it "a sacrilege." He pledged to work to shut it down, and fulfilled his promise by using a mediator to broker the deal.

The White Vulcan Mine operated for 50 years under the 1872 Mining Law, which gives mining companies access to publicly owned lands and minerals for minimal or no royalties. The mine provided sand, gravel and powdery pumice for lightweight concrete. In the mid-1980s, the fashion industry sparked a fad demanding stonewashed denim for jeans and jackets.

"Our business really took off then," said mine owner Ed Morgan. "We did between $2 million-$3 million worth of business last year." The company recently applied for a permit from the Forest Service to expand the mine onto an additional 30 acres.

Of 6,000 comments on the proposed expansion received by the Forest Service, four were in favor.

Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club's "Save the Peaks" campaign said, "This settlement represents a shift that is happening in this country toward preserving both biological and cultural diversity. It's a major victory. But as long as the 1872 Mining Law is in place, mountains like this are threatened."

As 100 people gathered on the slopes of the Peaks for the signing ceremony a light rain began to fall. Three times, speakers mentioned the 1872 Mining Law, and each mention was followed by a loud clap of thunder - a phenomenon noted both by the Hopis and James Lyons.

A delegation from the Hopi tribe was pleased by the settlement. The Hopi believe the Peaks are home to the kachina spirits who take the form of rain clouds and visit the cornfields near the Hopi mesas. At the ceremony, Tribal Chairman Wayne Taylor looked skyward with a smile and said, "The kachinas are happy. They're bringing rain to show their appreciation." Former Hopi Chairman Ferrell Secakuku called it "the best day of my life," while Cultural Preservation Officer Leigh Kuwanwisiwma concluded, "This shows that people don't need to be adversaries forever."

Christopher "Toby" McLeod lives in La Honda, Calif., where he produces documentary films. He is completing In the Light of Reverence, on Native American struggles to protect sacred sites.

Copyright © 2000 HCN and Christopher McLeod