MINES AND MEN
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.
Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Milwaukee Brewers
TicketsFri., Jun. 9, 6:40pm
All You Can Eat Value Pack - Mercury v Sparks
TicketsSat., Jun. 10, 7:00pm
Phoenix Mercury vs. Los Angeles Sparks
TicketsSat., Jun. 10, 7:00pm
Phoenix Rising Football Club vs. Vancouver Whitecaps FC 2
TicketsSat., Jun. 10, 7:30pm
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.
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.
The Phelps Dodge mine will be upwind from Prescott, and on a windy day, dust might hang over the town like a fetid burial cloth. Last year all but three of Prescott's M.D.'s signed a document protesting the mine. After Mary Schroeder landed her Cessna at the airport, I talked with one of the protesting doctors, family practitioner Bill Thrift.
"Prescott is a health resort," he told me. "People won't come here for their health with mines here. So the mines might damage the economy.
"We're selling our souls for a couple of jobs." THERE ARE, OF COURSE, plenty of people in Prescott who would tolerate a copper mine. In a town that just turned down a much-needed school bond, the extra money would be welcome. Becky Ruffner Tyler's father, Budge, would view a mine in Copper Basin as the price of progress.
The 72-year-old Prescott native sold his funeral-home business twenty years ago to devote himself to professional writing. He turns out columns for the Prescott Courier and writes for magazines, often about local history.
We talked recently in his writing room, which looks out onto hills of ponderosa pine and fat pinon trees. As a child, Budge Ruffner trotted his white mule Taos all over the same hills that greet him as an old man each morning. He loves the land as fiercely as his daughter loves it, but does not fear that a copper mine would pollute the air and groundwater. He trusts its regulation by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality.
Mining has always been a part of Prescott's history, Budge Ruffner told me. U.S. soldiers founded the town to protect gold miners prospecting on nearby creeks. Copper Basin itself has always had small-scale copper mining. Most environmental activists, he said, are newcomers who simply don't understand this basic fact.
"Some of these people who think of themselves as environmentalists have zero academic background to understand ecology," he told me. "Their whole involvement seems to be so emotional. "The greatest contribution some of these people could give the environment is to go take a shower."~
Ralph Ladner's involvement is through business. He is community liaison for Phelps Dodge in Prescott, and says that a Copper Basin mine would bring in more than 200 jobs and $1.4 billion during the sixteen years it would be worked.
Ladner is devoted both to Phelps Dodge and the outdoors. He grew up in Bisbee, where Phelps Dodge has a copper mine, and his father was a miner. It was there Ladner learned to love nature. He hiked the Huachucas in search of Mexican parrots. He loves Copper Basin "as much or more" than the people who oppose the mine, he says. He loves to sit there and "watch red-tails catch thermals." Until a couple of weeks ago, when Phelps Dodge said it no longer wanted to trade land with the federal government, Ladner had been working on the swap for nearly a decade.
The exchange has been in the works since 1970. Phelps Dodge wanted to swap approximately 2,400 acres of land it owns all over Arizona for 9,000 acres of federal land. The 9,000 acres are adjacent to Copper Basin and needed for processing copper there.
The swap sounds lopsided, but Phelps Dodge said the land the forest service would gain in the exchange was teeming with wildlife and clear-running streams. The forest service had approved the swap in 1984, but Prescottonians were furious. Geri Smith-Fornara, a local housewife, along with retirees like Bob Folkman, stopped the trade by demanding a thorough Environmental Impact Statement. Phelps Dodge agreed to pay the cost, and the forest service agreed to act as impartial moderator. Phelps Dodge and the environmentalists, however, bickered over the study as the environmentalists' demands increased. Phelps Dodge claimed the scope of the study was growing unnecessarily and driving up the cost. The environmentalists gloated. Eventually, Phelps Dodge decided against the land swap and the study was never done.
"Because of their single focus, the environmentalists have lost sight of the fact that the land swap included five miles of riparian habitat on east Clear Creek," Ladner said. "There are spikedace [an endangered native fish] in Clear Creek. Other land we offered is habitat for the Mexican spotted owl and peregrine falcons. Now we may sell that land on the open market. The environmentalists have been very shortsighted." IN THE EARLY MORNING sunlight, the boulders on Granite Mountain were the color of a salmon's flesh. Up in that wilderness, foxes and mountain lions were shivering off the winter chill.
Donn Rawlings had borrowed a friend's four-wheel drive and was waiting for me in the parking lot of Yavapai College. We were going to hike the ridge of the mountain, to see where Bond Gold wanted to drill. Granite Mountain is only a few miles outside of town on Williamson Valley Road, but Rawlings took me the back way, on a dirt road used mostly by ranchers who live at the base of the mountain.
As we bumped along, Rawlings told me about himself. He is 53. A nature lover. An Edward Abbey devotee. He and his wife Carol have lived in Prescott for six years. They plan to stay there after he retires from Yavapai College, where he teaches English and humanities. He is also a hiker, I discovered. After parking the truck, we climbed up toward a ridge north of the mountain. "This is an extraordinarily unusual area because it is so wild and remote and yet only a few miles from town," Rawlings said. We surprised a flock of pinon jays eating berries. They screamed at us as they flew into the air. "The remoteness of this area is important. I'd rather keep it unused and value it for that reason than have a gold mine here."
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.
He knew, also, that this land had been mined for centuries. He showed me the remains of the copper smelter that processed the copper ore from the nineteen or so mines that dotted the basin before World War II. He pointed out slag heaps from the turn of the century, the skeleton of a 65-year-old car, tin cans from ancient mining camps, antique sluice boxes made of rough pine. He found relics from other cultures as well: a shard of Indian pottery, a white leather British Knight basketball shoe.
From the banks of the wash, Thompson dug out light-green chunks of malachite, a rich copper ore. He could spot tiny beads of ice-blue azurite, another copper ore, in the decomposed granite surrounding an old mining camp.
Thompson sees both sides of the Copper Basin question. He told me that some of the people who opposed the mine were "some of the finest people I've ever met." In practically the next breath, he said, "I think there are a lot of laypeople who would welcome the mine. They are plumbers and real estate people. They want the mine for higher-paying jobs." Before we headed back into Prescott, Ray Thompson picked up a Pepsi can someone had thrown near the ruins of an old mining camp. He shook his head in disgust and threw it in the back seat of his green forest service car.
She worries that both mines would ruin the air, water and countryside near Prescott, perhaps forever. Everybody knows Copper Basin will be mined because copper mining is once again profitable. "One gets curious where these people think they get the copper wire for their TV sets." Some of the land around Granite Mountain can be bought by miners for less than a pack of Marlboros.
"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."
"The remoteness of this area is important. I'd rather keep it unused and value it for that reason than have a gold mine here."
"We're selling our souls for a couple of jobs." "I look at the land as a scientist, as compared to those who look at it with a Walt Disney approach."
"The greatest contribution some of these people could give the environment is to go take a shower."~
The mining company "does not have a moral, personal relationship with Granite Mountain.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.