Audubon feathers fly in Arizona

Huge mine proposal deepens schism between state's green groups

  • Old mine works visible from Oak Flat, near Superior, Arizona. Below, excerpts from a 2007 letter from Maricopa Audubon Society to the National Audubon Society detailing its gripes with Arizona Audubon and the Oak Flat land swap.

    Jonathan Thomson
  • Rock climbers say the climbing area near Oak Flat (left) could be ruined by the proposed swap.

    Jonathan Thomson
  • Former Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana now heads up Arizona Audubon, which has accepted more than $100,000 in donations from Resolution Copper and its partners.

    Courtesy City of Scottsdale

In August, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar visited Oak Flat, a boulder-strewn patch of land scattered with manzanita bushes and oak trees, about 70 miles east of Phoenix. Salazar was there to gather information on a proposed land exchange between the federal government and Resolution Copper Co., a branch of the global mining giant Rio Tinto. If Congress approves the deal, Oak Flat will become the mining company's property, and the feds will get thousands of acres of land along the San Pedro River and elsewhere in Arizona.

Regardless of whether they support or oppose the deal, most observers agree that, since it was first set in motion five years ago, it has become a tangled mess. The swap is mired in a far-reaching scandal that has left former Arizona Republican Rep. Rick Renzi battling federal fraud charges. Opponents of the deal — notably area tribes — have stalled it numerous times, and mine supporter Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in an effort to move the swap forward, temporarily held up two Interior Department appointments. Arizona's Democratic congressional delegation is currently divided over the issue.

The swap has also become a flashpoint in another heated, behind-the-scenes struggle. The Arizona branch of the Audubon Society — one of the oldest and most influential environmental organizations in the country — has gotten embroiled in a nasty internal dispute.

Hardcore conservationists in the Maricopa Audubon Society chapter, based in central Phoenix, are at odds with the more business-minded greens of Audubon Arizona, a statewide organization that reports directly to the national office. The war is being fought on many fronts but is mainly focused on the role of donations in conservation policy. Maricopa Audubon leaders say Audubon Arizona is unduly influenced by large corporate contributions. And that brings us back to the land exchange, because Audubon Arizona has received more than $100,000 from the companies that hope to mine the copper buried underneath Oak Flat.

Maricopa Audubon has aggressively pursued conservation goals for more than half a century, earning a national reputation. It played a key role in stopping the construction of two major dams in central Arizona, protecting desert-nesting bald eagle habitat and opposing telescopes in spotted owl and endangered red squirrel habitat on Mount Graham. And it's done all this on a budget of just $25,000 per year.

Audubon Arizona arrived on the scene in 2002. The National Audubon Society created the office to raise funds for the construction of a four-acre visitor center that opened earlier this year along the Salt River in Central Phoenix.

When former Scottsdale Mayor Sam Campana was named Audubon Arizona's first executive director in 2002, it became clear that the new group would not mirror Maricopa's low-budget, activist leanings. As a campaigner and politician, Campana, a Republican and devoted arts patron, was known for her voracious fund-raising. Her four-year term as mayor — which ended in 2000 — was punctuated by bitter battles between slow-growth proponents and the pro-development forces that she generally supported.

Her first task as head of Audubon Arizona was to raise $6 million to build and operate the Rio Salado Audubon Center. Campana's political background and ties to the arts community gave her the entrée to wealthy donors who were unlikely to contribute to more hard-line groups like Maricopa Audubon.

"She did a very competent job of raising all this money," says Herb Fibel, Maricopa Audubon chapter president. Indeed, she raised enough money to build the visitors' center and provide operating funds for the first two years. "But," Fibel says, "she raised that money, in our opinion, on the backs of important environmental issues that she came down on the wrong side of."

Campana insists that fund raising and conservation policy decisions are kept separate. Audubon Arizona receives money from a wide array of sources so that no single donor has undue influence, she says. The statewide group has a $1 million annual budget; about $500,000 a year comes from donors and the rest is derived from endowments. "We are a donation-driven organization but we don't let that influence our policy positions," says Sarah Porter, the group's associate director.

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