News

MINES AND MEN

Page 5 of 6

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene