Rock jocks fight a mining company

Land swap would undo a presidential order for land protection

  • Magma Gardens, between Oak Flat and the old Magma Mine, near where Resolution Copper Company wants to mine

    Photo courtesy Friends of Queen Creek

In the years following World War II, as the interstate highway system began to grow, flocks of Americans started driving into the great outdoors to picnic and camp. Recognizing this trend, in the early 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower enacted dozens of orders exempting certain federal lands from any use other than recreation. One of those places is the U.S. Forest Service’s Oak Flat campground in Arizona, about an hour east of Phoenix. The area attracts birders, hikers and campers, and its massive, wind-chiseled boulders lure climbers. Since 1989, it’s played host to the Phoenix Boulder Blast, one of the largest climbing events in the world.

But recently, the United Kingdom’s Rio Tinto Company, a mining giant that earns $2.8 billion annually, got wind of what could be one of the continent’s largest copper deposits, located below Oak Flat and nearby Superior, Ariz. Eager to develop it, Rio Tinto and Australia-based Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd. formed a subsidiary called Resolution Copper Company, which plans to invest $2 billion to mine the copper.

The company has proposed trading private property for the Oak Flat campground. Because the trade would involve both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, Congress would have to pass a bill authorizing the deal. Such a swap, called a legislative land exchange, is not subject to the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires in-depth environmental analyses and public involvement. "The executive order (from Eisenhower) didn’t say, ‘protect until a bunch of ore is found,’ " says Jason Keith, policy director of the Access Fund, a nonprofit that works to keep climbing areas open to the public. "(It said) ‘protect from mining,’ period."

The key to a copper-filled treasure chest

Resolution Copper already owns more than 4,000 acres surrounding Superior, as well as an abandoned mine just west of Oak Flat. Resolution plans to use that mine’s existing shaft to determine whether it is feasible to extract copper from 7,000 feet below ground, where temperatures reach 175 degrees. Should exploration prove fruitful, the company wants to extract ore with a "block caving" technique. According to mining engineer George Lopez, this involves drilling tunnels into the ore body, then blasting with explosives to create a cave. The process is repeated at several different levels, or blocks. After the ore is removed, the cave collapses in on itself, layer after layer, until the ground surface also collapses, or "subsides."

"Restoring the surface to pre-mine (condition) is impossible," Lopez says, and no one can predict what the land above Resolution’s proposed mine — including most of Oak Flat — will look like when the mining is done. Since 2003, Resolution has spent $35 million on exploration and on public relations in Superior and nearby towns. The company has offered to teach copper-mining skills to locals. "It’s really important that Resolution hire as many locals as possible," says Ron Ober, a public relations consultant to Resolution. "We’re going so far beyond the call of duty." Resolution has also hired Jim Waugh, who coordinates the Phoenix Boulder Blast, and renowned climber John Sherman to scout for land that climbers might find acceptable in exchange for losing access to Oak Flat (HCN, 7/7/03: Invasion of the rock jocks).

But some locals say the trade would sacrifice long-term recreation opportunities for short-term financial gain. "The economic benefits of mining are not sustainable," says Ted Gartner, a member of Friends of Queen Creek, a nonprofit group devoted to protecting access to natural areas around Superior, including Oak Flat.

Superior’s mayor, Michael Ong Hing, says he is "intrigued by Resolution’s openness to people," but he’s also wary — the town’s economy collapsed in the early 1990s, after the last mine boomed and then busted. Hing is concerned about the mine’s possible environmental impacts, and he sympathizes with the climbing groups. But, he adds, the climbers don’t benefit his community the way a big copper mine could, and they also create some impacts of their own: "They had professional vendors at the Blast, and we picked up their garbage after the event."

Let the trade begin

Meanwhile, Resolution has hired land-exchange consultants from the Denver-based Western Land Group Inc. to draft a bill. The proposed bill, leaked to the Access Fund in early March, lists 4,814 private acres that the company would purchase to trade with the Forest Service and the BLM for the 760-acre Oak Flat and 2,265 other federal acres nearby.

Last year, the Western Land Group worked on another controversial legislative land swap that would have allowed an Arizona rancher to trade some of his property for Forest Service land near five northern Arizona cities, including Flagstaff (HCN, 3/1/04: Arizona land swap dogged by questions). Opponents of the Yavapai land swap worried that growth spawned by development of those lands could strain regional water supplies, and they objected to the fact that the legislative land-swap process kept the public from having a say. In January, the Arizona congressional delegation introduced a bill for the Yavapai land exchange, but it has yet to pass.

The Resolution bill is unusual among land exchanges, because it seeks to overturn an executive order withdrawing land from mining, according to Janine Blaeloch of the Western Land Exchange Project, a watchdog organization. And, the Access Fund’s Keith says, "If they start pushing aside withdrawals in Arizona, they can do it anywhere."

A spokeswoman for Sen. John McCain, R, says the senator has not yet decided whether to sponsor the bill; representatives for Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. Rick Renzi, both Republicans, did not return phone calls.

Despite the current lack of support, Resolution’s communications director, Jennifer Russo, is optimistic that Congress will approve the deal. "I do know that that the current growth rate in demand for copper is increasing substantially worldwide," Russo writes in an e-mail. "If developed, the Resolution project will have significant, positive impacts on current copper deficits."

The author is an HCN intern.


Jennifer Russo corporate communications director, Resolution Copper Company, 602-956-0223, ext. 15,

Jason Keith policy director, the Access Fund, 303-545-6772, ext. 102,

Mar 07, 2007 10:52 AM

How can it be that anyone would allow rape of protected areas in this nation, by concerns that aren't even native to our nation? A consortium of British and Austrailian Corporations, allowed to defile one of the few protected areas left, which bye the way, are also native american sacred sites as I understand. Are the legislators, polititions seriously considering a notion that some vast area of this protected region would suffer random "settling? Let's not use euphymisms here, we are talking cave-ins, of unknown random proportions, pollution that no one has any idea what the consequenses of will be to the atmosphere, water table, etc on down the list. This is not some remote waste land, this is a community, populated by people like you and I. You couldn't do this in NYC, Chicago, Denver, Pheonix, nor Santa Fe... I for one will will make it my business to make this a broad issue as election season draws nearer and nearer. Billions of dollars better be worth it to Sen McCain is all I have to say, for the moment. I believe those same "worth it" billions will be quite an embarrassment for he and his ilk, when the carmera's begin their usual tours as that season approaches. If McCain wants to shine he needs to politely and firmly send the Britt's and the Aussies back home to pluder their own lands. Note to editor and whom ever else this may concern: I do not answer "unknown" or otherwise Caller ID blocked calls.

Feb 15, 2008 03:54 PM

Now that Sen. McCain is the presidential nominee for the Republicans he cannot be allowed to run without questioning some of his decisions.

He along with Sen. Kyl introduced the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange bill to allow these foreign countries to destroy the land, damage or maybe even poison our water & water aquifers...He needs to answer our questions.

Please contact me

Sylvia Barrett



May 15, 2008 12:31 PM

As An underground  hard rock miner for 23 years, 13 of them block cave mining ,the destruction to the water table to the town of Superior would be disasterous.The town gets it's drinking water from Queen Creek about 2 miles north of the proposed mine.I have lived all my life in Superior and also mined there when they used the  old cut and fill mining method which involved minimal ground  movement. Block and cave mining which is proposed at it's peak 110,000 tons per day  and to consume 40,000 acre feet of water a year, and will definitely cause enviornmental damage to the surface ,as to the water table.What should be done is a complete enviornmental & economic impact study just like the one that was done in Safford, Arizona, with the Dos Probes/ San Juan Project - Phelps Dodge land exchange.This study was done by the Bureau of land Management ,as set forth by (NEPA) National Enviornmental Policy Act. Resolution Copper Co. want's to conduct a legislative land swap to circumvent the NEPA provision, requiring these studies.They claim that they will conduct their own studies, which is like letting the wolf guard the hen house. With out these studies they will destroy this community, more importantly our drinking water.H.C. Munoz Superior, Arizona                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              .C.  ,