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The 1872 law was written to encourage mining on public lands, like the forest service acreage around Copper Basin and Granite Mountain. Under its provisions, the federal government gets no royalties on minerals dug from public lands, and a miner can gain title of the land for as little as $2.50 an acre. That means that some of the land around Granite Mountain can be bought by miners for less than a pack of Marlboros.
LIKE AN ANGRY LITTLE WASP, Mary Schroeder's Cessna rattled and buzzed and took off from the tarmac of the Prescott airport into the brittle blue winter sky.
Soon we were whizzing over some of Arizona's most rugged country in a six-passenger, fifteen-year-old airplane with a motor that sounded like a Toro lawn mower. Flying is the quickest way to understand why practically everyone in Prescott is disturbed about the mines.
Our flight was courtesy of Lighthawk, a New Mexico-based organization that matches up experienced volunteer pilots and their airplanes with people who are interested in surveying environmentally endangered areas from the air. Our pilot was Mary Schroeder, who lives in Santa Fe and has been flying Lighthawk "missions" for years. She's ferried river otters and sick owls through the air, as well as scores of Sierra Clubbers, politicos and journalists. My guide and the man who had arranged all this was a cabinetmaker and Prescott native named Jody Bell. To Bell, any mine would be a hideous intrusion on the land he has known since his childhood. In no time, we were looking down on Granite Mountain, a peak of huge boulders the color of Devon cream trellised with dark green manzanita and chaparral. From the air, Prescott's huge landmark looked small and fragile. Granite Mountain itself is a federally designated wilderness area, but some of the rocky forest service land bordering the wilderness is open to mineral exploration and mining.
Bell pointed out a cinnamon-colored ridge just north of Granite Mountain, where Redco owns mineral rights.
"No matter what kind of mine it is," he yelled over the plane's engine, "that little ridge will be blown away. It won't be there anymore."
After circling the mountain a couple of times, Mary Schroeder gracefully aimed the tiny airplane southwest. We sped over the ranch country around Skull Valley, rich with cottonwood-lined creeks and meadows of grama grass that have fattened cattle for a hundred years. The fragile underground water supply that feeds Skull Valley might be poisoned by Phelps Dodge's proposed Copper Basin mine, Bell said, although Phelps Dodge says there is no such danger. Skull Valley ranchers aren't sure who's right. One cattleman funded a report blasting a proposed forest service environmental study of Copper Basin as inadequate. But a neighboring rancher told me he saw nothing wrong with a mine in Copper Basin.
"There have always been little mines in this country," he said. "Once in a while, when it rained a lot, cyanide from a mine might wash into our creeks, and maybe a cow or two might drink the water and die. But the mines were always very good neighbors. They paid us right away for the cows we lost."
Skull Valley is only five minutes away from the huge Cyprus Bagdad copper mine. Bell wanted me to see the open-pit operation before we flew over the virgin Copper Basin area, so that I could envision what its future might look like.
From the air, the Bagdad mine looks like a giant bedsore ulcerating into the earth. Next to the mine, there are two enormous mountains of crushed waste rock dumped in what miners call tailing pits. The pits ooze blue-green copper sulfide.
The Bagdad mine is a lifeless, ugly moonscape. And it is likely to remain a lifeless, ugly moonscape once the copper is depleted and the Cyprus Company pulls out of Bagdad. Arizona and New Mexico are the only two states in the country that have no law requiring companies to restore mines to their natural condition after abandonment. Copper mining is a big industry in Arizona, and copper companies have powerful allies in the Arizona legislature. The irony, of course, was that we were flying over Bagdad's grotesque earth-ulcer in an airplane made of metals mined from the earth.
From Bagdad, we flew east, back to Prescott. We dipped over Copper Basin, which is still a virgin valley of pinons and chaparral. The ponderosa forest leading from Prescott to Copper Basin might dwarf a hiker, but from the air, that same forest is a thin green fringe between the Sonoran Desert stretching as far as I could see to the southwest, and the scrubland to the north. From the Cessna's windows, I could see how close the Copper Basin mine would be to Prescott. Although it is eight miles from the town plaza, Copper Basin is only a short drive from Iron Springs and a nearby overlook where generations of Prescott teenagers have necked and smoked pot.
In pre-air conditioning decades, rich people from Phoenix spent their summers at Iron Springs. The wealthy still like the ponderosa forests of Prescott's west side, and many of the houses there are owned by retirees. Some came to Prescott because they have chronic lung disease; local doctors call them "lungers," and worry about what the mine might do to their health.