A Copper Mine Near Superior and Oak Flat Campground Is Set to Destroy a Unique, Sacred Recreation Area — for Fleeting Benefits

For centuries, Linda Thomas' ancestors walked this rugged landscape near modern-day Superior as she does today.

"We have always harvested acorns and berries and had ceremonies here," says Thomas, who lives in the small Apache town of San Carlos about 50 miles away. "My granddaughter won't be able to come here and do that anymore if it's . . . it's going to be poisoned."

Thomas talks of her granddaughter as wind whips through the 5-year-old's hair, both of them standing on a hill of rocks and cactus overlooking sites at the Oak Flat campground. Thomas says the child's Apache name is Zuhnabah. The girl says her name is Serenity, which Thomas agrees also is her name.

Yavapais and Apaches used this land for generations. With a backdrop of gnarled mesquite, volcanic rock outcroppings, meandering streambeds, and the occasional Emory oak that gives the place its name, they would go there to bury their dead, gather edible plants, and hunt for small game.

Arizonans know the spot as a unique and historic recreation area just east of the prominent Apache Leap escarpment, south of U.S. 60 past the Queen Creek tunnel on the way out of Superior, if driving from the Valley. The biologically rich Sonoran Desert has many beautiful places, but the site of the Oak Flat campground and adjacent federal and private land ranks among the best. It has several square miles of austere rolling hills, maze-like cliff faces up to 100 feet high, and volcanic rock twisted and frozen into endlessly fascinating forms.

In 1955, the Eisenhower administration ordered that the 760-acre camp area be protected permanently from mining.

Popular not only with campers but picnickers, birders, and hikers, the area also is unique for what it offers rock climbers. Many consider Oak Flat the best place near metro Phoenix for climbing because of its convenient location and its compact collection of hundreds of mapped routes among the cliffs.

The largest outdoor climbing competition in the world, the Phoenix Bouldering Contest, took place here for 14 years, and it's the current site of a new competition that held its second annual event last month.

Because of a land-swap law signed by President Obama in December, though, much of the Oak Flat area appears destined to be destroyed — as if hit by a meteor.

The fun, beauty, and reverence for Oak Flat will cease long before then, when the mined-out honeycombed structure below it will make the surface too risky for visitors.

After the Resolution Copper Mine company takes title, it plans to go deep underground to scoop out more than 1,000 feet of rich copper ore deposits buried beneath Oak Flat. When it's done in few decades — or possibly before it's done — the beautiful landscape, sacred to some, will turn into a circular, crater-like pile of rubble about a mile across and up to 1,000 feet deep.

"It's unimaginable what people could do with something so blessed," says Wendsler Nosie, a former San Carlos Tribal Council member who — along with other critics of the mine — walked from San Carlos to Oak Flat in February to protest the land exchange. "This could be used for all of us. This whole thing is based on greed and money."

Nosie, holding a brown feather after his morning jog and outdoor prayer, is among several Native Americans helping to create a permanent presence at the campground since the protest walk. Activists drive out to Oak Flat after work, some taking turns spending the night there. Volunteers bring them food and firewood.

The San Carlos and Yavapai Apache tribes officially have denounced the mine plan, and Native American groups across the country have been mobilized — re-mobilized, actually, since they've spent years fighting the mine — to write letters and sign petitions in a last-ditch effort to block the project.

"We're not leaving!" Nosie vows. "This is a holy place. This is going to destroy Arizona and be an embarrassment to the whole world."

The mining company promises that Arizona will receive massive economic benefit from the project.

But it's easy to be cynical about the benefit, which, unlike the crater the mining will leave behind, isn't guaranteed and which could be squandered over the years by local and state leaders.

Two exhibits make this an easy prediction: The mining town of Superior has been in dire economic straits for decades. And despite 100 years of mining, Arizona's broke in 2015.

In the future, people who loved Oak Flat and remember how it was, like Serenity, are unlikely to celebrate the depressed tangle of rock and weeds in the crater, though they may gaze at it in quiet horror, as did visitors to Ground Zero in New York City before the Freedom Tower was built.

A ravaged Oak Flat won't be the mine's only environmental legacy, either. The operation will involve spewing crushed-up, chemical-carrying tailings on about seven square miles of desert between Queen Valley and Superior north of U.S. 60. There's also the possibility of toxic surprises that often accompany mining activity.

The big question, now that the mine's legal hurdle has been cleared and its eventual environmental impact all but assured, is whether Serenity and other future Arizonans will wonder where all that copper and its once-promised fortune went.

The story of the impending loss of Oak Flat to mining is a remarkable new chapter, if not two or three, in Arizona's century-plus history of mining.

In retrospect, the RCM project appears to have been inevitable since 1995, when the rich body of porphyry copper was found about a mile below the surface by exploratory drilling of the Magma Copper Company.

This is a true mother lode — it's said to be the largest copper deposit in North America and one of the largest in the world. A technologically advanced capitalist society dependent on copper doesn't want to just leave all that valuable metal in the ground.

A loophole in the 1955 preservation order, drafted into law in 1971, made the swap possible. It states that the U.S. government could dispose of the land any way it sees fit, but the feds couldn't mine it. Trading the land away to a mining company, ironically, was allowed.

Resolution Copper Mining LLC, a 55-45 partnership between two of the biggest mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto of the United Kingdom and BHP-Billiton of Australia, has spent about $1 billion so far on the mine since acquiring it in 2002. This includes millions in scholarships, marketing, legacy-mining cleanup efforts, payments to Superior and private groups, and other projects to build up what's known in the industry as "social license" to conduct mining operations

Spreading its money and promises far and wide, the mining company has gained bipartisan support, making it tougher for opponents to get traction.

While early RCM literature states optimistically that the mine could be operational by 2017, the company couldn't have predicted all the twists and turns that have caused years of delay.

Environmentalists couldn't stop RCM from preparing for the mine in multiple ways, such as building roads on land it owned and completing the deepest mineshaft in North America by last November. But for years, they kept the needed land swap from occurring, thwarting RCM from starting work on the underground mine.

The swap was needed because the company couldn't destroy land it didn't own. It wanted to trade the 760-acre Oak Flat campground and 1,662 acres surrounding it for 5,344 acres of various chunks of "environmentally sensitive" land it owns around the state.

Several attempts by Arizona's Democratic and Republican leaders to have Congress pass the land deal failed.

In February, former Arizona Congressman Rick Renzi began serving his three-year prison sentence stemming from a corruption scandal related to the mine project. In 2006, New Times broke the story ("Deal Breaker," October 12) of how Renzi pushed an early form of the land swap because it included land his former business partner, James Sandlin, wanted to sell for an artificially high price. Native American groups scuttled that land deal, but Renzi's fate was sealed by documents proving his corruption.

The land swap for RCM became too hot for Congress after the Renzi scandal, but with billions of dollars at stake, it was only a matter of time before it passed.

U.S. Senator John McCain, who descended 1,100 feet into the new mine shaft last October, pushed successfully to have a rider attached to this year's must-pass defense-funding legislation. He and fellow Republican Arizona U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, once a lobbyist for Rio Tinto, lauded the mining project in a news release in mid-December after Obama signed the defense bill. Flake admitted at the time that if not for the secretly negotiated bill attachment, the exchange would never have passed Congress.

Opponents of the mine, including Native Americans across the country, were stunned by the turn of events. Some believe the swap sets a dangerous precedent by allowing formerly protected lands near Indian reservations to be spoiled. Emotions continue to run high. San Carlos Apaches staking out Oak Flat since February hope against the odds to overturn the law.

"The American public, as far as the land goes, got screwed," says Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Sierra Club's Arizona branch. "It's public land, and it's a campground. It's been protected from mining for 60 years. It should have stayed that way."

The land swap requires the mine's proposals to go through a federal environmental review, but the deal guarantees RCM the land 60 days after the review is complete, regardless of what it finds. A big part of the problem, critics say, is an 1872 law that gives too much power to mining companies.

RCM told New Times it will take another five years from this point to clear the final legal hurdles and make preparations. An additional five years would be required to build the underground operation, set to be a marvel of human engineering. After that, the mine may bring out copper for 40 to 50 years.

While the project has caused some division in Superior (population: 2,500), most residents of the Pinal County village seem to support it.

There is little question the town will benefit from the project, at least in the short term.

Up to 1,400 positions for miners will be needed, which will be among 3,700 direct and indirect jobs to be created, states a widely touted 2011 analysis by Elliott Pollack and Company.

Efforts will be made to employ locals, RCM promises. Economic spinoff will mean more business opportunities in Superior, where a few signs of a renaissance already are under way.

Of course, money is the goal here. RCM wants to make lots of it — published reports show it seeks to extract about $144 billion in copper for a roughly $5 billion investment. The Pollack report claims Arizona will enjoy about $1 billion in economic activity annually from this single mine.

Indeed, such "real jobs and real dollars will lift working families in Superior and across Arizona," Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick says in a statement to New Times. "Arizona needs a diverse and stable economy, and mining is a part of that."

As to mining's ugly side, even mine supporters "have a shared interest in the common good," the Democrat says in mentioning the upcoming environmental-impact reviews. "Copper Basin communities . . . cannot have long-term economic stability without clean water, air, and land."

Some critics, however, worry that RCM isn't required to pay its fair share of the riches to Arizona communities, especially when taking environmental damage into account. As Superior residents know as well as anyone, booms typically are followed by busts. Superior's trying to squeeze as much money out of the mining operation as possible, and the state aims to benefit through a form of trickle-down economics.

Arizona's economic output was $259 billion in 2011. Adding another billion couldn't hurt, but it wouldn't result in a balanced state budget, reductions to the state income-tax rate, or other significant effects for average Arizonans.