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.