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Audubon feathers fly in Arizona

Huge mine proposal deepens schism between state's green groups


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.

The rift between Maricopa Audubon and Audubon Arizona widened in 2006, during an election for three seats on Maricopa Audubon's board of directors. Campana backed three candidates, including her aide, Sarah Porter, and incumbent president Mike Rupp, who during his first term had loudly opposed the chapter's frequent use of litigation to achieve its conservation goals. On the other side were hard-liners like Fibel, who had previously served as Maricopa's president, and vice president Robin Silver, a co-founder of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. After a bitter race for positions that had rarely been contested in the past, Campana's candidates all lost.

Soon after, Rupp gained support from National Audubon to create a brand-new chapter within Maricopa Audubon's traditional membership area. Desert Rivers Audubon drew away 15 percent of Maricopa Audubon's members.

Maricopa Audubon was furious. In July 2007, the chapter sent a letter to National Audubon Society president John Flicker, detailing its grievances. The letter, signed by several of the chapter's former presidents, notes many instances where Campana appears to have accepted donations in exchange for dropping efforts to protect endangered birds, including the desert-nesting bald eagle.

"How can National Audubon hope to bring back endangered species if protection of their critical habitat conflicts with Audubon Arizona's fundraising?" the letter asks.

The letter also discusses the Oak Flat land swap. The deal would offer about 3,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land at Oak Flat to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,500 acres of private land. Resolution's underground block-cave mine would extract some 1.5 billion tons of ore, employ more than 1,400 workers and have a $46 billion economic impact over its 60-year life.

Maricopa Audubon staunchly opposes the land-exchange bill sponsored by Sens. McCain and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., as well as a companion bill in the House introduced by Arizona freshman Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick. (House Public Lands Subcommittee Chairman Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., is opposed to the bill, which has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.)

Fibel says the Resolution copper mine would destroy rare Sonoran Desert riparian habitat in Devils Canyon by sucking up billions of gallons of groundwater. He worries that subsidence caused by mining will wreck sacred Native American sites including Apache Leap. And because the exchange is legislative, rather than administrative, it sidesteps the National Environmental Policy Act. On top of that, Maricopa believes that the land Resolution wants to trade has little value for protecting endangered species.

Audubon Arizona has yet to take an official stance on either the land exchange or the copper mine. Still, it has repeatedly lauded the conservation values of the parcels that Resolution wants to trade, and the company has cited that in its PR campaign. Meanwhile, Resolution and its parent company Rio Tinto have donated approximately $138,000 to Arizona Audubon since 2003. Resolution Copper spokeswoman Jennifer Russo says the company "reached out" to Audubon Arizona several years ago when the company was assembling its package of lands for the proposed exchange. The company continues to work with Audubon Arizona on conservation issues, she says, adding: "Their relationship with us is unrelated to the contributions."

Resolution's contributions go beyond money. Among the parcels that the company is offering to trade is approximately 1,000 acres of retired ranch land that is interspersed through National Audubon's Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch near Elgin. If the swap goes through, Resolution would buy the rangeland and turn it over to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which would then include it in Audubon's research ranch.

Audubon Arizona officials say they never asked Resolution to pursue that parcel of land, valued at approximately $1 million. "Resolution Copper did not come to Audubon and ask us what we would like to see in this land exchange," Porter says. "They asked the Forest Service … what lands they would like in exchange, and the Forest Service brought it to their attention."

Maricopa Audubon's members see it differently. The 1,000 acres of retired ranch land, they say, is being dangled in front of Audubon Arizona and National Audubon to buy their silence during the land-exchange debate. "That's the big carrot," says Fibel.

Audubon Arizona is also extolling the environmental value of 3,000 acres of land along seven miles of the lower San Pedro River northeast of Tucson that would go to the feds under the deal. The National Audubon Society places a high priority on protecting this stretch of the San Pedro River, classifying it as an "Important Birding Area." The San Pedro River is the last undammed river in the Southwest and flows intermittently on a northerly course from Mexico. Sections of the river nourish a rare cottonwood and willow forest that provides habitat for millions of migratory birds.

But Maricopa Audubon conservation chairman Robert Witzeman says that although that land hosts many songbirds, it is not worth sacrificing the riparian areas near Oak Flat and in Devils Canyon. Resolution's 7B Ranch, he says, is degraded from trespassing cattle and ATVs, and those seven miles of the San Pedro River lack both water and the cottonwood/willow forest. A much-acclaimed 800-acre mesquite bosque does not provide habitat for endangered birds.

Witzeman also warned that 7B Ranch could be further damaged in the future if BHP Billiton — a partner in Resolution Copper — moves ahead with plans to develop 35,000 nearby home sites that would likely rely on groundwater.

Witzeman says Audubon Arizona's tacit support of the land-exchange bill is undercutting efforts by Maricopa Audubon and other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and The Wilderness Society, to stop the swap from going ahead. Arizona Audubon "opposes our efforts to protect bird habitat and birds," he says. "It's tragic."

Meanwhile, under Rupp's helm, the new Desert Rivers chapter is vocally supportive of the land exchange. "We don't agree with (Maricopa's) position whatsoever," he says. Rupp says he takes Resolution Copper "at their word" that the mine will not harm the environment. "I'm more interested in seeing the economic development take place and the boost it will mean for the region there."

For its part, the National Audubon Society, through its spokesman Phil Kavits, denies that donations ever influence its conservation decisions. And, he says, despite all the hubbub in Arizona, the national office is "not particularly focused" on the issue.  

The author lives in Tempe, Arizona.

For more information:

Maricopa Audubon

Reluctant Boomtown, from the Feb. 18, 2008, issue of High Country News

Audubon Arizona

Resolution Copper Company