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"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.

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Terry Greene