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Fierce Opposition

The controversy over a proposed Pima County mine proves copper is no longer king

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An elbow-to-elbow hearing room was the first hint of a seismic shift.

It was Jan. 16, and the Pima County Board of Supervisors was meeting to discuss a mine. This mine is planned for the beautiful Rosemont Valley, in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. Stakes were high, and tensions ran thick.

A Tucson Weekly cover had trumpeted the risk to Rosemont posed by Augusta Resource Corporation. The Canadian-based company was proposing an open-pit mine, and soaring copper prices were giving the company's plan extra heft.

At that meeting, mine boosters were wildly outnumbered by mine opponents--which included the supervisors themselves. Before the day was done, they'd unanimously vote to oppose Augusta's project. Although county supervisors have little ability to actually stop the mine, their symbolic vote sent a forceful message to U.S. Forest Service officials. And the Forest Service can kill Augusta's mine, by denying use of surrounding federal lands.

Augusta's thorough thumping also reveals far-reaching changes in how mines are viewed across much of Arizona. Gone, it seems, are the days when copper was king.

Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican, led the charge against Augusta's mine, which would be in his District 4. He calls the board's vote a bellwether for growing concerns about the environment.

"It is something I've talked to a lot of my district's residents about," he says, "as well as a lot of people across Pima County. They all feel pretty much the same. The shift is a reflection of Pima County from when it was rural 50 years ago to today, when it is urban."

That's precisely reflected in economic trends, he says. "Listen, in 1977, about 15 percent of our property-tax base was mining-related. Today, it's less than one-half of 1 percent. Although mining was an economic engine of the past, now it doesn't seem appropriate for Pima County."

Numbers tell the story. For example, in recent years, Pima County's population has grown by about 20,000 annually. But during that time, resource-dependent industries--including mining--have drastically declined. In 1981, mining ranked as Southern Arizona's third-largest employer, with about 21,000 workers. Today, it has dropped to No. 8, employing approximately 7,000 people.

Those numbers belie a larger societal shift, says Theresa Selfa, a sociologist at Kansas State University. Selfa has conducted extensive research into changing rural economies. "You're seeing this in communities across the West," she says. "People are realizing they have some different ideas about what they want to do with their resources. And they're not so excited about having a corporate takeover or allocation of those resources."

That's particularly true for areas such as Southern Arizona, she says, where tourism revenues--heavily dependent upon on scenic areas--are outpacing revenues from mining and agriculture.

Does that mean the West is headed for a showdown? "I think so," she says. "I think the tide is turning, even in some pretty conservative states that have been dominated by lobbying groups from the natural-resource industry."

Selling such projects to a skeptical public is also getting tougher. Case in point: Prior to presenting its plan to Pima County supervisors, Augusta hired Tucson PR firm Strongpoint LLC to package the idea. But following the county vote, Strongpoint seems to have beaten a firm retreat; several calls to company owner Mary Rowley were not returned.

Public attitudes are also reflected in changes to the Rosemont plan itself, says Jamie Sturgess, Augusta's vice president. "I think it's a challenge to make any kind of development, whether it's a mine or a highway or a subdivision--anything that is seen by some members of the public as changing their scenery or surroundings."

As a result, he says, his industry goes to far greater lengths than in the past to gain public acceptance. To woo Pima County, for instance, Augusta is pledging roughly $100 million for social and environmental projects in areas that would be affected by the mine. Plans have also been revamped to make mine operations much less visible from roadways.

Sturgess calls such olive branches a sign of the times. "Mining companies are having to make more concessions, more thoughtful and creative designs, and (include) more consideration of other public values," he says.

He calls it a big shift "in mining as it's historically been done, compared to what we have to do in future." Projects now must start "with conservation of everything, in terms of water and energy and manpower and (the affected) surface area--in terms of everything possible."

But even all of those concessions don't change the facts on the ground, says Roger Featherstone, a Southwest representative for the conservation group Earthworks. He says opposition to mining Rosemont Valley "is very vocal, and it isn't just from the enviros."

According to Featherstone, the Rosemont fight is also fueling a national drive to revisit the Mining Act of 1872. Meant to promote settlement in the West, the law continues providing mining companies almost free reign on public lands.

While the Rosemont mine is far from vanquished, "obviously, it seems to be translating into people finally saying, 'We've got to reform the law,'" he says. "Whether we're successful there, only time will tell."

Meanwhile, opposition continues--even against the backdrop of a highly lucrative copper market. "That is significant," Featherstone says. "Informed citizens--and you've got to think people fighting Rosemont are informed--are saying that, despite higher (copper) prices, it's still a no-go."

If Supervisor Carroll is a reliable barometer, such attitudes may be here to stay. "I know the kind of destruction these open-pit mines can leave," he says, "especially in what is a very scenic route along the highway to Sonoita."

He says most of his constituents agree. "Mines don't have a good reputation in the West at all. I think the entire Western United States is holding something like a $70 billion cleanup tab" for old mines.

"In the end," he says, "it really comes down to preserving the environment, and preserving our quality of life."

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