WHEN SOMEONE DIGS YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD
Tara McCabe, a thin and thirtysomething woman with a world-weary grin, thought she had found a slice of paradise three years ago when she moved to Walker, a Bradshaw Mountain hideaway that started out last century as a booming gold camp.
In a world of encroaching concrete, Walker is a refuge, a place where the strike of a hammer on wood can echo for miles. A place where, even when the moon is full, the thick forest canopy brings a dense darkness to the hillsides. A place where coyotes really do bay, and residents are so society-shy that some fought the implementation of 911-emergency service last year because it would require the county to put up street signs.
But now McCabe sees history repeating itself, intruding on her Eden. A modern-day mining company--Marra/Majestic-Paystreak Partners Inc.--thinks the town still has gold to give, and has announced its intention to reopen the old diggings.
McCabe and her neighbors face the prospect of dynamite blasts in their residential neighborhoods, tunnels and pits dug practically in their backyards, contamination of their water supply and lasting damage to wildlife and the pristine woods that drew them to Walker in the first place.
And when McCabe began to organize the townsfolk in protest, the company tried to bully her, even buying up the mineral rights to her property, thus suggesting that her living room might mark a good spot to dig a hole.
If this were an old Western movie, one would expect the law, brandishing six-guns and wearing a silver star, to ride in and save the day in the nick of time. The only problem is, the law is bound to bow to the mining company's desires, and work against community preservationists.
The 1872 Mining Law recently made national headlines when Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called a press conference to denounce it. The law allows mining companies to "patent" (in effect, purchase) the right to remove minerals on federal lands for a fee of less than $5 an acre. Over the years, enterprising mine conglomerates have happily taken advantage of this deal of the century--carrying an estimated $360 billion worth of gold, silver and other precious metals off public property.
To highlight the magnitude of the problem, Babbitt cited the recent filing, by Barrick Goldstrike Mines Inc., a Canadian company, of patents on federal land near Elko, Nevada, that promise to be the biggest haul in U.S. mining history. For less than $10,000, Barrick has captured the rights to what government geologists estimate is $10 billion worth of gold.
Calling the gold giveaway a "rape" of the taxpayers, who Babbitt says should benefit from the billions in mineral wealth, he used the Barrick claim to illustrate why the mine bill should be immediately reformed.
But as egregious as the Barrick patents may be, Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, could just as easily have cited the situation in Walker, which is built in and around national forest land, to show what is wrong with the nation's archaic mining regulations.
What Babbitt failed to mention is that the mining law not only costs taxpayers billions in lost revenues, but also grants miners wide latitude in deciding where to mine. They can dig almost anywhere on federal property where the diamonds sparkle or the gold glistens.
Even if the rich vein of mineral wealth is someplace difficult or dangerous to reach.
Even if it is directly underneath a town.
No one claims there is anything approaching $10 billion in gold under Walker, but it is in this little town--on the fault line where public and private land meet--that it becomes apparent there is a high human cost, as well as a financial one, to the antiquated mining law. For unlike the Barrick claim, which is located in a desolate region populated primarily by vultures and rattlers, Walker is a place where people live.
Although the mining company insists it has no intention of harming the town or its people, under the 1872 law, modern-day miner-49ers can dig, blast and scrape the forest down to the nub, and never stick so much as a toe over the legal line.
Nor is Walker alone in facing mine-related injuries. According to enviro-groups like the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club, such scenes are likely to be repeated all over the West, as new mining technology and the old law combine to make former mining towns--many of which have evolved into placid, residential havens--inviting targets.
Some experts predict that small, "boutique" mining operations will become a trend in the West. There are hundreds of small, mineral-rich townsites that are built adjacent to or on federal lands. And as the law stands now, if there is any gold under them thar little burgs, they, and the people they now contain, will just have to make way.
Fueling this new gold rush is the fact that mining companies know the free-for-all 1872 law won't stand for long. Thanks largely to Babbitt, it is clear that the moldy mine law's days are numbered. Now is the time to get, while the getting is good.
Congress may amend the law as soon as this fall, but that won't come soon enough for Walker and other towns. By then, mining operations may have license to destroy what it is that makes the communities truly valuable to their residents.
For them, all that glitters is not gold.
Tara McCabe sighs heavily, gazing out the picture window of her cabin. Stretching out before her are acres of thick, pristine pines. The sun is slowly retreating over the ridgeline, leaving the valley that cradles Walker, and her cabin, in shadow.
"You know, what depresses me about all this is that the mining people just don't get it," she says, recounting a phone conversation with Leon McCarra, president of Marra/Majestic, during which he said the company would be happy to spend some of the profits from its Walker mine to build a library for the "town's youth."
"It was like he expected me to think that was a good thing," McCabe says, shaking her head.
After all, there are probably more mountain lions than "youths" in Walker, and to the reclusive and primarily over-40 Walker crowd, the prospect of building a library is akin to building a synagogue in the Vatican. Who needs it?
The McCabe-McCarra exchange illustrates the fundamental disagreement over what it is that makes Walker valuable--its gold or its nothingness.
In Walker, the only community building is a small firehouse, holding the town's tanker truck. Nearby, "downtown" is memorialized by a lonely historical marker, which at night is barely illuminated by a bulb mounted on the only pay phone within ten miles. The only regular enterprise conducted in town is an outdoor Sunday school, held on spring and summer Sabbath mornings--weather permitting.
It's fair to say that there is no "there" there.
And that is exactly what residents like about it.
McCabe and her husband, Terry, who runs a moving company in Prescott, settled in Walker because it is "one of the most beautiful spots in the state."
"We came out here to get away from technology and civilization," McCabe says. "But it seems like you can't get away from it anywhere.
"It's too bad, because there needs to be some places where there isn't any civilization. There certainly aren't very many left."
Certainly not many like Walker.
A quick history lesson:
By 1863, the fabled California gold rush was over. The richest veins had played out, and most of the thousands of miners who had flocked to the West to make their fortune found themselves broke and adrift: prospectors without prospects. Some, weary of the chase for the big strike, traded in their pickaxes for rifles and found employment in the Union Army, then on the brink of engaging the Confederates in a bloody battle at Gettysburg. But others, afflicted with terminal Gold Fever, were drawn to the site of what promised to be the next glistening bonanza--the Arizona Territory.
In the spring of that year, Joseph Reddeford Walker, a mountain man who rode with Kit Carson and was the first to guide a wagon train from St. Louis to California, led a party of bedraggled miners into the central mountains of Arizona. There, they camped along Lynx Creek. (So named, legend has it, after a member of the party, finding what he believed to be a dead lynx lying in the water, bent to pick it up. The animal, very much alive, frightened the miner so badly he beat it to death with a stick.)
When not dispatching bathing lynx, Walker and crew found time to discover one of the richest gold lodes in the West.
Before long, thousands of miners, braving hostile Yavapai and Apache Indians, descended on the new town of Walker. Saloons and brothels rose next to mills and smelters, as the population zoomed to 4,000 almost overnight. Miners dug the Poland-Walker tunnel--at 8,000-plus feet the longest in the world at the time--through the Bradshaw Mountains so that millions of dollars worth of gold ore could be moved quickly to a main railroad line.
More immigrants, attracted to the area by the Walker strike, drew out a map marking the boundaries of a nearby upstart town called Prescott the next year, 1864.
Mining gave Walker life. But it destroyed life, as well.
The rolling hills of the area, covered with tall pines, were almost denuded for lumber to shore up mine shafts. Piles of tailings, filled with toxic mining by-products like lead and arsenic, were left to decompose. The runoff from these slag piles and waste dumps made Lynx Creek run a murky turquoise in the spring and turn a foamy brown in summer.
By the turn of the century, when the gold ran out and the miners moved on, Walker resembled the cratered landscape of an alien planet.
But slowly, Mother Nature worked her magic on Walker. The trees grew back, the birds who called them home returned. Much of the land in and around the town was made part of the Prescott National Forest, and after World War II, the area became a haven for full-time urban dropouts and weekend wilderness warriors escaping the Valley's heat--a new, rural suburbia built atop the ruins of a long-dead era.
It is a new breed who call Walker home now, people who prize their solitude as much as any miner ever treasured a nugget.
And the new community retains old memories of what havoc mining can bring. Which is why residents like Tara McCabe equate the rebirth of mining in Walker with the return of the plague.
McCabe insists she is "not really an environmentalist, or an activist."
"But when something threatens your home," she says, "you become active pretty quick.
"I don't usually get involved in things like 'causes.' But this," she gestures out the window of her cabin, "is worth saving."
McCabe has become the leader of a loose confederation of Walker homeowners, drawn from both the 100 or so full-time residents and the additional hundreds of weekend visitors, who oppose plans by the Ohio-based Marra/Majestic to reopen a long-closed mine known as the King Pin.
Most of the homes and cabins in Walker are on private land--land "grandfathered in" when the Prescott National Forest was created. But the town is interwoven with federal forest parcels that bump up against the private lots.
The King Pin claim, for instance, sits on an island of government ground, surrounded by privately held property and dozens of homes.
That, says McCabe, is what makes it dangerous.
"This was once a wild mining town, that's true," McCabe says. "But people need to realize that it isn't like that anymore. People have moved here, built their lives and homes here, on the premise that Walker is just a good, quiet place to live.
"It's not a mining town anymore, and living next to a loud, polluting mine is not what anyone moved here for."
But according to state mine officials and even the prospective mine operators themselves, noise, pollution and depletion of the town's water supply are exactly what residents can expect.
Marra/Majestic's president, Leon McCarra, admits that if the King Pin yields what the company's investors hope and pray it will, up to 1,000 tons of ore could be brought out of the mine every day for five years. That means 40 trucks a day, rolling down Walker's dirt roads--roads that sometimes only accommodate that many vehicles a week--creating clouds of choking dust.
But the noise and dirt of this new truck route are minor inconveniences compared to what residents fear may result when dynamite, an inevitable tool of the underground miner, is used in the King Pin. In addition to the obvious safety questions of using explosives within 200 yards of homes, there is an added danger: tunnels left over from the last gold rush.
These catacombs, in various stages of decay and disrepair, run for hundreds of miles under the town. What will happen to these old shafts, tunnels and wells that permeate the geology of the area when the ground starts shaking from explosions?
Terry McCabe thinks he knows the answer.
"Things are going to fall apart," he says. "Heck, every year just from rain we get big sink holes that the county has to come out and fill in. If the area is unstable enough to be affected by a little water, it is unstable enough to be affected by blasting."
While Walker residents speculate about their homes--many of which were built by amateur carpenters with materials stripped from old mining cabins, and thus are not paragons of stability to begin with--being swallowed up by the earth, they also have begun to fret over the environmental threats.
Mining has toxic by-products--most notably arsenic and cyanide--that if not disposed of properly can easily leach into the ground and, eventually, the groundwater. Some tailings left over from the last mining boom have been decomposing and running off into a creek next to the McCabes' cabin.
"Our creek still turns a strange shade of blue, and sometimes we get weird foam," says Tara McCabe, who plans to ask state environmental officials to test the creek next time it changes hue. "When you see stuff like that, you really begin to wonder if we need to further stir up the poisons in the ground here with more mining."
Bill Haas, assistant state mining inspector, says McCabe and other Walker residents "have legitimate reasons to be concerned" about any mining resurgence in their town.
Haas, a 30-year veteran of the mining industry who recently came to work for the state Mine Department and has conducted preliminary inspections on the King Pin, warns that "no one really knows what the effect of blasting in the area will be."
"But even more importantly, there is a distinct possibility that any serious mining in the area could seriously deplete the town's water supply."
All of Walker's homes are served by individual wells, which tap underground crevices filled by a few shallow underground streams. The water supply is limited and tenuous.
Haas warns that blasting and digging could easily alter the fractured aquifer, drying wells up.
"It could be very difficult for some of those folks to live there without water," Haas says. "That's why they would like the state to shut the whole project down.
"But we can't. Our hands are tied."
That's because the 1872 Mining Law doesn't allow the state or federal government to restrict mining on federal land--only regulate it in minor ways, such as requiring miners to restore the land to its "original condition" after operations are complete.
But even a quick tour of Walker reveals that neither the state Mine Department nor the U.S. Forest Service has had much success forcing mining companies to repair the land they have scarred.
The townsite is littered with the remnants of hundreds of old mines. The government can't be blamed for many of them--shafts and pits dating back 100 years; unfenced dark holes, many partially filled with brackish water.
Others, however, are much newer, the debris from more recent mine projects. Phillip Murray, a 30-year Walker resident, remembers dozens of aborted mine revitalization schemes that ended with the miners bagging their haul and disappearing--leaving unprotected mine shafts behind in their wake.
"Over the past few years, a lot of people have tried to get gold out of Walker," Murray says. "They mess up the landscape, leave holes . . . and then take off. Nobody ever makes anybody clean up the mess.
"Why should we believe that this new mine project will be any different?" Murray wonders.
Marra/Majestic didn't help allay this concern by explorations it conducted near the King Pin last summer. During the digging, the miners exploded dynamite that nearby residents say could be heard echoing for miles and left piles of wood and rock debris strewn around the site. The mine tunnel itself was only loosely covered with odd pieces of lumber.
Nor did the company promote civic good will when it demonstrated what some residents claim is a proclivity for distortions, outright lies and ruthless business hardball.
"This kind of thing is happening all over the country," says Darrell Knuffkey, a spokesman for the Washington-based Wilderness Society, an environmental group that, next to Bruce Babbitt, has become the foremost critic of the 1872 Mining Law.
"Fairly small mining operations, 'boutique' mines, if you will, are opening like crazy in western states," he says.
Part of the reason is that new technologies--variations of radar and ultrasound, to help find mineral deposits, along with new, more efficient ore-refining techniques--have become less expensive and are no longer restricted to corporate mining giants.
This techno-explosion, environment watchers like Knuffkey say, is helping to make mining the new "faddish" industry of the 1990s, open to small partnerships. Forest Service officials say they have received 100 requests to patent mining claims in the Prescott National Forest this year alone. Many are in desolate, uninhabited areas, but several are near old mining towns like Walker--with quaint names like Potato Patch and Big Bug--that have long since become small residential enclaves.
But Knuffkey says that the main reason for the growth in patent requests is that miners and investors know that this giveaway on federal lands won't last. Now is the time to patent land, so that when Congress changes the law, the patent rights will be "grandfathered" in.
Both houses of Congress have passed measures that would alter the law to force miners to pay royalties on mined ores--which would theoretically make it less profitable, and thus less attractive, for mining companies to patent public land.
But according to Stephanie Hanna, a spokeswoman for Babbitt, neither bill directly addresses the problem of towns like Walker.
"We need to recognize that not only should taxpayers get a cut of the profits on public lands," she says, "but that there are also certain areas that are just not suitable for mining under any circumstances.
"Whether because of their natural beauty and environmental importance or because they are inhabited, some places just should not be disturbed."
Hanna says Babbitt wants a "suitability" test, along with the royalties requirement, in any mining reform bill. She places the odds on success at "50-50."
Fair odds. But until such a bill becomes law, the situation will remain as Knuffkey describes it.
"It doesn't matter if there are people in the way or not," he says. "Miners can come in anywhere, even if it is right next to a house or town hall, and dig it up. That's the problem with the law. According to it, there is no better or more appropriate use for public land than to mine it.
"And these little towns, where public land meets private, are paying the price."
"This is going to be grrreat for Walker," enthuses Jim Parks, a geologist and consultant hired by Marra/Majestic to help run excavations into the King Pin.
An articulate man who has advised some of the world's biggest mining companies on projects all over the West, Parks' eyes glitter with intelligence and vigor. For him, mining is a holy mission, a love and an avocation rolled into one, and he can't understand why anyone wouldn't want an active gold mine in his backyard.
So, too, Ollie Ross radiates positive energy. One of two local partners in Marra/Majestic (along with Prescott Valley resident McCarra), who serve as on-site supervisors for the company's Ohio investors, Ross is the stereotype of the old, prickly miner. With snow-white hair and beard framing his deeply lined, leathery face, Ross is a character frozen in time.
The pair stand in a small clearing near the King Pin, surrounded by tall pines, as Parks explains that mining is fundamentally good: an all-American activity that serves the best interests of the people and the economy.
"What we want to do here is, in the purest sense, engage in the creation of new capital," he says, probing the earth with his boot. "This is where wealth, wealth that drives the entire world, starts from. Mining is what built this country. Mining is what built the world."
Ross nods in agreement and scampers over to a large, metal bin, retrieving a rock about the size of a tennis ball. He grins and gestures for a visitor to come nearer.
"You see this?" he says, pointing a gnarled finger at thin, sparkling strands that line the rock, only a few days before taken as a sample from the King Pin. "That's gold. And that, my friend, is what it is all about."
So strong is their commitment to those spidery gold veins in the stone that Parks and Ross seem almost incapable of comprehending the concerns of residents.
"Basically, their worries are based on ignorance," Parks says. "The public has a lot of misconceptions about mining, and the idea that a little dynamite, detonated by professionals, is going to cause people's homes to fall over or mine shafts to collapse is just . . . well, ridiculous."
Despite the fact that state mine regulators share residents' concerns, Parks downplays the suggestion that the mine will lead to contamination or destabilization of the water table.
"We will be responsible," he says dismissively. "I wouldn't be involved in a project that would hurt this town.
"Plus, you've got to remember, this is only a tiny mining operation. People are making a big fuss out of nothing."
The word "tiny" comes up repeatedly in conversations with officials of Marra/Majestic, who endeavor to highlight the limited nature of the King Pin project. But their other comments and actions hint at something else. It became clear after a recent contentious meeting with the Walker community that while these prospectors, in traditional miner fashion, are keeping their data on the mine's worth close to the vest, they have big plans.
Walker's citizens were introduced to the mining company during a meeting on Memorial Day weekend, when Ross met with practically the entire town. At first, Ross announced that the "small mining operations" would only require "a few" trucks to ramble down Walker roads every day, and that mining would be confined to the King Pin site.
Under the heat of her questioning, Ross equivocated for a time, but finally admitted that up to 40 trips, by semi-size ore carriers, could be made daily on the narrow, dusty roads, and that Marra/Majestic had been buying up property and patenting mineral rights all over Walker.
In fact, the company had become one of the largest landowners in town in preparation for possible mining operations at several sites, and did not rule out digging and dynamiting on lots adjacent to homes and cabins.
The crowd began to get surly. One resident was heard to mutter, "Anyone got any tar and feathers?" Ross became defensive.
"Look," he told the crowd. "The Mining Law of 1872 gives me the right to do this. That's the law, folks.
"I'm sorry, but that's just the law."
There are other indications that Marra/Majestic is gearing up for extensive operations in the Walker area.
Parks and Ross say the company has sunk an estimated $250,000 into the project so far--just for initial surveying and consulting fees. Much more, perhaps three times that, will be necessary to commence full-scale mining operations. One doesn't drop $1 million without some expectations that the mine is a glory hole.
McCarra, who wasn't present to witness the vitriol at the town meeting, happily volunteers that Marra/Majestic hopes to construct a helicopter pad, buy several ambulances to handle "worker injuries on site" and even dig a milelong tunnel through the mountains to move ore to a railroad line--just as miners did a century ago.
He also suggests that a host of other mines in the area will be tapped by the company, and that the full-time population of Walker will swell to 3,000 (up from several hundred) within three years.
"We think [the King Pin] is going to be pretty rich," McCarra says. "And that's going to produce a lot of big changes around here."
And, as McCabe can attest, the company has shown how hostile it can be to anyone who dares stand in the way of those "big changes."
Soon after McCabe started urging residents to write letters of protest to the Interior Department, the Forest Service and the state Mine Department, she says she got a menacing phone call from McCarra.
"He told me it would be better if I stopped fighting this and 'got on board,'" she says. "He told me it was in my interest and in the community's interest to shut up.
"I'm not a timid person, so it didn't affect me. But I think it was meant to intimidate me."
When McCabe, who lives on a private road that leads to the King Pin site, refused to give permission for Marra/Majestic to run trucks over the road, she received another, more subtle sign that the company isn't fond of dissent.
Quietly, Marra/Majestic bought up the mineral rights to the Midnight Snap, an old mining claim on which McCabe's home sits.
Like most of the people in Walker--and like most property owners, in general--McCabe owns her land, but not the minerals underneath the surface. The purchase raises the possibility that Marra/Majestic may be interested in not only raiding public lands, but the property of those troublemakers who, for instance, block the use of a much-needed road.
"How can I not interpret this as some kind of threat?" McCabe asks. "I mean, what else could this be about?"
Company officials deny threatening McCabe or using the mineral rights to her property as a lever. Parks says that the mineral rights were purchased only as "an insurance policy" against other miners trying to "horn in" on the Marra/Majestic claims.
But when pressed about the possibility of expanding operations onto property like the Midnight Snap, Parks and Ross reply with a qualified maybe.
After all, if the King Pin yields a rich lode, if excavations--scheduled to begin by the end of summer--show that there are, in fact, millions of dollars in gold down in that deep, dark hole, wouldn't they want to expand operations, turning Walker into one giant mine, if necessary?
Ross clasps his hands and grins broadly, gazing skyward in mock prayer.
"If that happens," he acknowledges, "then anything is possible.
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.