MINES AND MEN

DIGGING AT GRANITE MOUNTAIN AND COPPER BASIN WOULD SCAR THE FACE OF PRESCOTT. PLANS HAVE BEEN STOPPED, BUT ONLY FOR A WHILE.

There is nothing terribly offbeat about Becky Ruffner Tyler. She drives a Volvo. She's fashionably slim, and her thick blond hair is stylishly coifed. She wears tailored clothes. She is the founder of a school popular with parents who are lawyers and doctors and architects. She serves on important statewide committees to aid children, and is herself the devoted mother of two. She is married to a successful builder, and recently moved into a new house. She calls the metate in its entryway an "Indian Cuisinart."

In short, Becky Ruffner Tyler is typical of perfectly sensible upper-middle-class people who live in Prescott.

And just like other perfectly sensible Prescottonians, Becky Ruffner Tyler gets upset when she talks about copper and gold mines invading the Prescott National Forest that borders much of the town. She acts as if her soul is being assaulted. And in a way, her soul is being assaulted: Two of Prescott's most beautiful and treasured natural features, Copper Basin and Granite Mountain, are in jeopardy. Becky Ruffner Tyler worries about the very real possibility of gold exploration a quarter of a mile north of Granite Mountain and just a few minutes' drive from town. She also worries about Phelps Dodge's proposed open-pit copper mine on 780 acres of land it owns in Copper Basin, just eight miles from the town plaza. She worries that both mines would ruin the air, water and countryside near Prescott, perhaps forever.

This is why Becky Ruffner Tyler looks me right in the eye and says a very odd thing. She says she will rip off her clothes and hurl her nude body in front of Phelps Dodge's bulldozers if they ever try to to dig an open-pit mine in Copper Basin.

ENVIRONMENTALLY CONSCIOUS Prescottonians and Phelps Dodge have been skirmishing for years. Sometimes the environmentalists win the engagements--they think they won the most recent struggle, which centers on a land swap Phelps Dodge had planned for years with the federal government. The swap was necessary for immediate development of the Copper Basin mine Becky Ruffner Tyler and practically everyone else in Prescott suspected would be dug very soon. Then, just two weeks ago, Phelps Dodge decided against the swap. This means that the company won't be opening the mine for a few years, although Phelps Dodge denies that the environmentalists' objections had anything to do with the swap's failure.

But it's unlikely the environmentalists will win the war against the largest producer of copper in the United States.

What everybody knows is that Copper Basin will be mined because copper mining is once again profitable. Phelps Dodge recently announced a 10 percent increase in earnings. Tom Foster, a Phelps Dodge spokesperson, said the bottom line is this: Copper Basin is one of five undeveloped copper ore bodies Phelps Dodge owns in the United States. The world needs copper. The world will continue to need copper. There are 175 million tons of copper ore beneath the ponderosa pines and chaparral in Copper Basin. Sooner or later, he said, Phelps Dodge will mine Copper Basin regardless of what people like Becky Ruffner Tyler say or do.

Then he added, in a rather wounded tone: "One gets curious where these people think they get the copper wire for their TV sets." "They're playing a waiting game, but the real issue is where they have Copper Basin plugged into their list of sources for development," Bob Folkman told me.

Folkman, a 66-year-old retiree who moved to Prescott several years ago, worked for 35 years in the mining department of Union Carbide, a company he still refers to as "we" and "us."

And yet he opposes the Phelps Dodge mine, because, he says, it's just too close to town. It will damage the town's economy by driving away the retirees who make up roughly 40 percent of the approximately 40,000 people who live in Prescott's metropolitan area.

Now Folkman and his fellow environmentalists are waging mano-a-mano combat with mining companies, this time over the mountain that is depicted on most postcards of Prescott and is visible from every part of town. A Nevada-based exploration company called Redco owns mineral rights near Granite Mountain and is encouraging drilling for gold. Last spring, Bond Gold, a company with significant investment money from Australia and Canada, leased Redco's claim and was granted permission by the U.S. Forest Service to explore. But Bond pulled out after environmentalists, led by Yavapai College faculty members Nina Mohit and Donn Rawlings, filed a formal appeal with the forest service. The two pointed out that federal law requires an Environmental Impact Statement before mineral exploration can be carried out. They demanded such a study on Granite Mountain.

What they really worried about, though, was that if Bond had discovered gold, it might install an open-pit mine. There are several ways to mine gold: One is to churn up large amounts of earth, crush it and leach out the gold with cyanide. Another is to dig an underground mine. Although it scars the earth less, a deep mine offers more of a threat to underground water supplies.

Other parts of the Prescott National Forest are being targeted for gold exploration. Prescottonians, including Mohit and Rawlings, are so distressed about that possibility they organized a forum last month to discuss nothing less than the reform of 1872 Mining Law. More than 150 people attended.

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