Hardrock Mining Showdown

  • The Santa Rita Mountains near Tucson, site of the proposed Rosemont mine

    Lanie Levick
  • The pit of the Morenci open-pit copper mine in southeastern Arizona, one of the largest in the world

    Bruce Fulton
  • Reclamation test plots on the proposed Rosemont Mine site, where the University of Arizona is experimenting to see how best to bring back the desert landscape.

    Chris Hinkle
  • Jeff Cornoyer, a mine geologist, shows a group of journalists and citizens the site for the proposed Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

    Chris Hinkle
  • Artist's rendering of the Rosemont Copper Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson.

    Tetra tech rendering from Cooper Aerial Surveys image
  • Protesters outside the U.S. Forest Service headquarters in Tucson last February.


Page 3

Rosemont Copper boasts that its polling shows that a majority of people in the Tucson area support the mine and the possibility of new mining jobs. Several Chambers of Commerce and other local business groups have endorsed it.

But the Arizona Game and Fish Department appears concerned. In 2008, wildlife biologist Joan Scott wrote a letter to the Forest Service on behalf of the agency, warning: "Despite any and all mitigation measures, this project will result in significant adverse impacts to wildlife, wildlife habit and wildlife recreation. ... (It) will render the northern portion of the Santa Rita Mountains virtually worthless as wildlife habitat and a functioning ecosystem." She also said that re-establishing native vegetation would be far more difficult than the company predicted. And she effectively urged the Forest Service to consider saying "no" to the Rosemont Mine.

Other opponents include Catholic nuns who live in an abbey near the site; retirees in largely Republican Green Valley who value scenery more than mining; middle-class tract-home owners in Sahuarita, a Tucson exurb; artists and entrepreneurs in touristy small-town Sonoita and Patagonia; two Republican county supervisors in Tucson; and two local Democratic members of Congress. Many local governments also formally oppose the mine, along with half the area's state legislators.

In October 2009, critics were out in full force when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack -- the political appointee in charge of the Forest Service -- sent a deputy, Jay Jensen, to tour the site and listen at two public hearings. At the first hearing, in Elgin -- the heart of Arizona's wine country, which is just east of the site -- Santa Cruz County Supervisor John Maynard said the mine would harm ranches, tourism and the wine industry. Wade Bunting, president of the Sonoita Community Action Alliance, warned that the dozens of 24-ton tractor trailers leaving the mine daily will make the scenic highway unsafe.

Nan Walden, from a farming family that has pumped groundwater to grow pecans for generations -- under state controls since 1980 -- blasted the mine proposal, noting that it would face laxer regulations than her farm does. She pointed out that mining is now less than 1 percent of the state's economy, compared to tourism at almost 10 percent. And Arizona's tourism largely relies on scenery and outdoor recreation and other uses of public land. There are already 50,000 abandoned mines on the national landscape, she said. "Is this the legacy we want to leave our children and grandchildren?"

At the second hearing, in Green Valley, activist Mike Carson warned that if the Rosemont Mine is approved, it would send a signal that the rest of southeast Arizona's "Sky Islands" -- biologically unique isolated mountain ranges -- are also up for grabs. Ned Norris Jr., chair of the Tohono O'odham Nation, said the Rosemont site was the ancestral land of the long-vanished Hohokam community. An archaeological survey found traces of ancient pit houses, food caches, hearths, a stone platform -- even a ballcourt -- from the era roughly spanning 400 to 1200 A.D.

"We have history. We have stories. Those stories and legends we continue to share," Norris said. "What will that mine do? It will harm our environment and devastate the habitat on which many species depend."

Pima County Supervisor and seventh-generation Tucsonan Richard Elias, a Democrat, told the Green Valley crowd he was almost hoping that day would be windy, so the federal politico, Jensen, could taste the dust spewing from tailings of active and closed mines around Green Valley. Roger Featherstone, an activist for the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, ridiculed Rosemont's argument about the need to keep this country self-sufficient in copper, given that the company plans to sell much of its copper to China for processing.

"The bottom line is, if there was ever a poster child for reform of the 1872 Mining Law, it's right here," Featherstone says. "The opposition is profound. There are very good scientific, cultural and social reasons for it. Yet we have agencies saying there isn't a lot we can do because of an antiquated law."

Under all this pressure, the Forest Service has been flip-flopping on Rosemont.

In 2007, then-Southwest Regional Forester Harv Forsgren, based in Albuquerque, said at a congressional hearing that in lands open for mineral entry under the 1872 law, "the statutory right of the public to prospect, develop and mine valuable minerals is fully honored and protected."

But in June 2008, then-Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jeanine Derby, based in Tucson, with direct authority over the mine site, disagreed. In an interview, she said the Forest Service could adopt a "no action" alternative in the environmental impact analysis, if it concluded the mine plan was not acceptable and could not be mitigated, effectively requiring the company to produce a whole new plan. But a year later, the agency said in an unsigned memo to local government: "The Forest Service cannot categorically prohibit mining activity or deny reasonable mineral operations under the mining law … selection of a no-action alternative is outside the discretion of the Forest Service."

In October 2009, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack echoed that view in a letter to a Green Valley activist. But 24 hours later, the day before his deputy visited the area, Vilsack retreated. He wrote U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, a Tucson Democrat, saying that the first letter had been sent out by mistake after he had reviewed an initial draft and didn't like it. He asked that the letter be held up and promised no decision "until we have completed a thorough review of the proposed mine, the mine plan of operation and any required mitigation."

Yet in July 2010, an internal draft of the agency's first chapter of its draft environmental impact statement said that it can't "categorically" stop mining activity or deny legal mining operations at the site. A month later, the acting Southwest regional forester, Francisco Valenzuela, said that nevertheless, "The Forest Service hasn't made a clear decision on which way we are going."

Because the agency has no timetable for releasing a final Rosemont EIS, let alone for making a final decision, nobody knows when that last word will come down, or what it will be. Many Westerners who want reform of the old mining law -- and many who don't -- are waiting to hear.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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