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.

Suddenly Rawlings stopped in his tracks. "There's a brown towhee!" he exlaimed. "I didn't know they came up here."

We reached the top of the little ridge and rested on a sienna-hued outcropping even older than the Precambrian boulders on Granite Mountain. Underneath this ridge, Redco suspects, lies gold that will be bought by the world's jewelers, dentists, computer manufacturers and investors. The top of the outcropping had been staked by Redco, and the yellow plastic ribbon on the spike of pinewood was tangled up in a cholla cactus. Rawlings sat there for a long while, enjoying the stillness.

As a member of the Prescott Audubon Society, Rawlings helped his friend and fellow college professor Nina Mohit temporarily block gold exploration here by insisting an environmental study be conducted.

After Bond Gold pulled out, Redco announced it would seek a different company to explore. Redco also offered to sell Rawlings and Mohit its mineral rights in the area--for $375,000.

"We were not being snide when we made that offer," Redco's president Paul Strobel told me in a phone interview. "I would be delighted if they could buy the rights. Then I could go someplace else.

"It is only fair to offer the property to those concerned," Strobel said, adding that in a way he sympathizes with Mohit and Rawlings because he, too, loves nature. "I am a geologist," he said. "Of course I love the land. I spend half my life hiking around mountains and hills." He later added, "I look at the land as a scientist, as compared to those who look at it with a Walt Disney approach."

Strobel told me the land around Granite Mountain was "very promising" for gold mining. He also pointed out that he had followed the 1872 federal mining law to the letter. "The law says we are entitled to explore and develop mineral resources on public lands," he told me. From the top of the ridge where Paul Strobel and his company think there is gold, I could see Mint Wash, where Nina Mohit lives. Although power lines cross her property, Mohit built a house powered only by solar energy. To her, sunlight is a more ethical energy source, environmentally and politically.

Now 43, Mohit once ran the Tempe Peace Center, an organization dedicated to stopping the Vietnam War. She put her organizational abilities to use once again this spring, when she launched a grassroots citizens' group called the Granite Mountain Action Committee and protested the Bond Gold drilling operation.

Drilling on Granite Mountain would be sacrilege to Nina Mohit. "There is an identity and sense of bonding in Prescott that has a lot to do with Granite Mountain," the philosophy instructor once told me.

"The more you get to know Granite Mountain, the more you feel responsible for it. This is love."

"I would suggest that Redco," she said, "does not have a moral, personal relationship with Granite Mountain."

On top of the ridge, a raven flew above us. The air was so still that its wings sounded like slow-beating bongos. I remembered something Mohit had done during her speech to antimine activists at Yavapai College last month. She showed a slide of Granite Mountain. Then she showed a slide of a gold toilet seat. Then she asked the audience, "Which is more important?" NOW THAT THE PHELPS DODGE land swap has been canceled, Ray Thompson will be transferred out of Prescott by the forest service. This is something of a blow for Thompson, who had been sent to Prescott from New Mexico three years ago to work on the swap's Environmental Impact Statement. He likes Prescott. And even though he's been with the forest service eighteen years and understands that moving is part of his career, he is upset that he has to uproot his family once again.

Thompson likes Copper Basin, and knows it intimately. He took me on one of his last hikes through the area a couple of weeks ago.

We drove in a forest service Chevy on a forest service road that winds away from Prescott and up the eastern slope of the Sierra Prieta toward Copper Basin. The forest is thick with ponderosa pines, but white-barked aspens grow where cold air gets trapped in the mountain's valleys. Mule deer and mountain lions thrive here, as do rabbits, gray foxes and coyotes. Occasionally, Thompson has seen a wild animal drinking from an old bathtub at Government Springs. The spring is owned by Phelps Dodge, which had hoped to give it to the forest service in the land swap.

Once the road reaches the crest of the Sierra Prieta, it winds down into Copper Basin. The basin is a wild place. The ponderosas give way to squat manzanita brushes, drought-hardy chaparral and fat juniper trees with bark like the skin of an alligator. At midday, javelina seek the shade of the scrub bushes, waiting out the heat.

The road eventually leads to the ranches of Skull Valley and Kirkland, and then down the Yarnell Hill to Phoenix, but Thompson parked the Chevy near a wash at the bottom of Copper Basin. Thompson knew exactly where Phelps Dodge planned its open-pit mine. He knew exactly where the tailings pits would go. He knew where Phelps Dodge's 780 acres ended and where the forest service land began.

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