Thin clouds settled above the Santa Rita Mountains, casting the northern slopes in languid gray shadows. A small plane hummed overhead, shimmering occasionally with brilliant glints of sunlight, before disappearing once more in the billowing haze.
Far below and several miles north, the final public hashing of the U.S. Forest Service's draft analysis on the proposed Rosemont copper mine—slated for that very mountain range—was getting under way. Cars spilled across the huge asphalt lot encircling Sahuarita High School, and wedged into dirt tendrils stretching between ball fields and maintenance yards.
Beyond that lot, the low murmur of a hundred quick conversations wafted through gaping doors leading into the huge campus auditorium. On the auditorium stage (and reassured by the dozen or so cops present), Coronado National Forest officials sat with expressions suggesting they might be secretly whispering Zen chants, the ones meant to evoke a more harmonious mental hideaway.
Before them was a crowd of hundreds, in rows reaching wall to wall. Dotting the crowd were round green placards—curled fists, as it were—with upraised thumbs.
"Yes to Jobs!!!" the placards declared.
Heading the long list of speakers hoping to comment on that draft report was Ron Barber, an aide to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. Like Giffords, Barber was shot during the Jan. 8, 2011, rampage. Due to her injuries, Giffords would resign her post a few days later; Barber, who has since announced he is running to replace her, slowly took a spot on the podium.
"First of all, I commend everyone who has come out for the hearings," he said. Giffords "has always believed an engaged citizenry is the best part of a democracy, and makes a democracy work."
That sentiment had its limits, however. Giffords opposes the mine, a stance that apparently didn't sit well with numerous folks in nearby seats. Nor did Barber's spiel on her behalf. He was just finishing when the moderator motioned.
Barber stopped. "I'm sorry, my time's up?" he asked. "I'll conclude by saying ..."
"Time's up," someone in the crowd behind him hollered.
"Sit down!" yelled another. The minutes ticked by as the hecklers continued, waving their little green fists, some attached to sticks.
Barber stood there, stoic, until the moderator eventually leaned into his microphone. "I'd appreciate it if you all could show a little respect here," he said to the crowd.
"Can I conclude with one sentence?" Barber said.
"No!" someone behind him screamed.
He finished anyway, soon to be followed by a parade of others who either demonized the proposed mine or professed their undying adoration. Each was met with the requisite cheering or catcalls.
Meanwhile, out in the parking lot, a small crew of mine supporters hovered around a black Ford SUV. More specifically, they gathered at a white folding table near the SUV's rear hatch, which was filled with small bags of Doritos, gleaming coffee canisters and more of the little green fists. The dapper young fellow tending this cornucopia wore a blue sport shirt with the logo "Rosemont Copper" emblazoned on the front. He explained that the ubiquitous fists were compliments of Rosemont.
"They purchased the paper," he said as he straightened water bottles, also sporting Rosemont Copper labels.
Just then, Rick Grinnell strode to the table and reached for one of the water bottles. Grinnell recently made headlines by losing as a GOP candidate for Tucson mayor. He's also a member of the obstreperous Rio Nuevo Board, and makes his living, at least in part, as a consultant for Augusta Resource Corp., the Canadian investment outfit hoping to dig the mine in the Rosemont Valley, and the parent company of Rosemont Copper.
Grinnell's role within the Augusta schmooze machine is to get Tucson's business community on board. As such, he regularly mingles with the big boys—the Clicks and the Diamonds—and is no stranger to a blazer and crisp tie. But that day, it could hardly be coincidental that he was dressed in good-ol'-boy denim, a green fist tacked to his chest. After all, you'll never see a Click or a Diamond at these proletarian parleys. Instead, Grinnell was massaging the working man, those blue-collar citizens that Augusta routinely lures en masse to such meetings with abundant free chow—that afternoon's lunch was at Sahuarita's Rancho Resort Clubhouse—and the promise of plentiful jobs.
I asked him about their loutish behavior during Ron Barber's talk. "Here's what I told Ron," Grinnell told me. "People are tired of being worried about where their paychecks are coming from. They're tired of hearing that there are no jobs coming. They're tired of hearing, 'No, no, no.' It's too bad, but unfortunately, he was sort of the ...," he said, trailing off. "When is government going to stop saying no to opportunity?"
Later, I call David Steele, who offered a different take. He's a founding partner of Tucson-based Strategic Issues Management Group, a PR firm in the employ of Dick and Nan Walden. The Waldens own 6,000 acres of pecan groves in Sahuarita, operated as the Farmers Investment Co., or FICO. They vigorously oppose the proposed mine for, among other reasons, its predicted heavy use of water.
Steele blamed Augusta for stoking the crowd that heckled Barber. He took particular aim at the Arizona Business Coalition, a group created specifically to support the proposed mine, and which laid out cash for the Rancho Resort soirée. He also took Grinnell to task for emailing invites to all attendees at that meal, which doubled as a session to write tightly scripted comments to Coronado Forest officials. Grinnell's emails were signed by Rosemont CEO Rod Pace.
"They were holding the pre-event lunches and busing folks in," said Steele, "and making all kind of promises about the glory land that this project is going to bring. Rosemont got these folks all ginned up, and they were just completely disrespectful to Ron. It was shocking."
From Arizona State Route 83, the Rosemont Valley spreads west like a rumpled carpet toward the Santa Ritas. Dappled with juniper and stitched together by small washes, it is a picturesque backcountry where only plane flights break the hush.
But for all its perceived tranquility, Rosemont has long been bitterly contested. Modern clashes date back to mid-1995, when mining giant Asarco Inc. announced plans to dig a copper pit there. Although the proposal faced fierce opposition, it was crashing copper prices that ultimately drove Asarco to abandon the project.
Nearly a decade later, Augusta bought the 3,000-acre property, and announced its own plans to establish a copper mine on the site. Surrounding public lands are slated to be used to stash tailings piles.
The battle over the Rosemont Valley has raged unabated ever since, both here at home, and in the big leagues. It has rumbled through the halls of Congress, and just last week, the federal Environmental Protection Agency tossed a huge roadblock in Augusta's path when it cited several factors that might lead to a rejection of Augusta's permit application, required under the Clean Water Act.
Several key details make the Rosemont Valley perennially contentious. "You've got the obvious competition between resource use, proximity to a major city, and copper," says Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, which opposes Augusta's project.
But Featherstone also says that interest in the Rosemont Valley's copper deposit—which he calls mediocre and tough to access—only grows intense when high mineral prices justify the bother. "It's a difficult ore body. Even though there's a deposit down there, that's the reason it hasn't gotten that much intense pressure."
Until now. "You've got copper sitting at $3 or whatever it is a pound," he says. "When you've got copper getting that pricey, people do things that ordinarily, they'd be a little more prudent about. They get that fever going on."
Indeed, that fever is an old acquaintance in these parts, and boasts a history of raucous political theater.
It was February 1997 when Tucson's City Council voted to oppose Asarco's planned mine in the Rosemont Valley. By that spring, the Pima County Board of Supervisors was puffing up to do the same. But on the day of the board's planned vote, Asarco packed the meeting with 200 noisy mine sympathizers, and the decision was postponed.
"If I would have known that this was the type of turnout we would have gotten on the issue, I would have done it completely differently," then-Pima County Supervisor Raúl Grijalva told the Arizona Daily Star at the time. "I didn't understand the panic of the Asarco people."
Two weeks later, the board appointed Ray Carroll to fill a seat left vacant by the recent cancer death of Supervisor John Even. Within minutes of his appointment, Carroll voted for a resolution opposing Asarco's plan.
But by February 1998, Asarco had abandoned its fight in light of those dropping copper prices. In June 2004, the land was purchased for $4.8 million by hometown speculator Yoram Levy and his partners at Triangle Ventures. A few months later, Levy offered to sell Rosemont to Pima County as open space for $11.5 million.
But the county was strapped for cash, and by June 2005, Augusta had snatched up Levy's 2,760-acre property for $20.8 million.
Experts have estimated that Rosemont could produce some $13 billion worth of copper, along with extra revenue from molybdenum and other minerals. Operation of the 800-acre open-pit mine would require adjacent federal real estate for tailings piles and other waste.
But the land was hardly just a pending industrial site. Wildlife surveys had found at least 10 threatened plants, a crucial wildlife corridor and the key to countless vital watersheds. And in a report on the mine's potential impacts, Kerry Baldwin, of the Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation Department, called it "a massive project that will permanently alter the character of the land on well over five square miles of currently native habitat.
"The basic character of the land will be changed forever," Baldwin wrote. "A significant amount of a nonrenewable resource will be extracted from the site permanently and no longer available to future generations; a huge pit and impact footprint will remain after the closure of the mine."
But in terms of PR spending, Augusta had already left Asarco in the dust. Not only was the company touting a "21st century mine," but it also fueled a cutting-edge spin campaign, with at least two local public-relations firms on its payroll at any given time. It regularly bought sponsorships on the local public-broadcasting station, and inundated Tucson's business community with the message that this mine would prove a perfect antidote to hard times.
Augusta went so far as to fashion a surreal logo with a pigtailed little girl gazing toward the sky, a bit of agitprop eerily reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy Girl" campaign ad that concluded with a mushroom cloud—and obliterated Barry Goldwater's presidential bid.
But there were public stumbles as well. Copying Asarco, Augusta packed county Board of Supervisors meetings with fellows demanding gainful employment. But the company suffered embarrassment upon revelations that those would-be miners were just poor schmucks who'd been offered a free meal and a sweatshirt reading "I Want One of the 350 Jobs at the Mine."
The board nonetheless voted to oppose the project. (The delayed vote came shortly after the Tucson Weekly ran a front-page editorial encouraging readers to voice their own opposition to the project.)
Then there's the card Augusta honchos handed out at public events, touting the potential pit and asking recipients to state their own feelings about it.
"Tell Us What You Think," read the card. Then folks were offered two choices.
Choice 1. "I support your plan to bring new jobs and an economic engine to Arizona."
Choice 2. "I have comments or questions about your plan."
Curiously, these cards offered no third option, such as, "I think your plan sucks."
Later, the company began targeting areas of town with letters seemingly signed by neighbors who supported the mine. The effort suffered a setback, though, when it turned out that the letters had actually been written by Augusta's in-house PR crew.
At the same time, Coronado officials were dishing up a few blunders of their own. For instance, rather than hosting hearings where the public could speak about the project, they initially opted for much-tamer "open houses," which provided no opportunity for public give-and-take.
Frustration with that approach exploded at a gathering in Patagonia on March 20, 2008, when the Forest Service called in Santa Cruz County sheriff's deputies and the U.S. Border Patrol after a local senior citizen got out of hand.
Then there is the matter of water.
Red flags went up in the summer of 2007, when the Community Water Co. of Green Valley announced a deal with Augusta that would have the mining company build a $15 million, 9-mile-long Central Arizona Project pipeline almost to Green Valley, from the current terminus at Pima Mine Road.
According to Augusta officials, this generous arrangement was aimed at easing Green Valley's future water concerns and fostering good will toward the mine.
Others smelled a rat. Among them was Carroll, the county supervisor, who questioned Augusta's promise to fund that pipeline regardless of whether the mine was ever begun—despite repeated assurances by Community Water president Arturo Gabaldón.
"Saying something 1,000 times doesn't make it true," Carroll told the Arizona Daily Star. "It's certainly tied hand-and-glove to the mine."
Only later was it learned that Augusta's altruism included a valve on the Green Valley line to divert CAP water to the Rosemont mine.
Still, through it all, Augusta officials certainly seem to have had the ear of Coronado officials. In fact, mine opponents accused forest officials of hosting closed-door confabs with company representatives—a pattern that eventually sparked a lawsuit by those very critics, who argued that they were being locked out of the process. (The lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. District Court judge in February.)
Tension only increased when the Forest Service repeatedly pushed back its timeline on issuing a draft environmental impact statement for the proposed mine, as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. During the down time, federal officials routinely offered contradictory statements about whether the analysis would include a preferred alternative that outright rejected the mine.
Outright federal rejection of the mine is considered a near-impossibility under the archaic Mining Act of 1872, initially passed to encourage frontier mining. Today, the law makes stopping even a nightmarish project nearly impossible.
There were also plenty of questions about exactly why Coronado officials uncharacteristically dragged out releasing their draft impact statement. It was certainly a cold dash of reality for Augusta, which had confidently hustled out a press release after the forest circulated a preliminary version in June 2011. The press release crowed that a "Record of Decision" to green-light the mine was nigh at hand.
"The Record of Decision ('ROD') for the Rosemont Copper project appears on track for January 2012," it read, "and in-line with previous USFS guidance allowing for a 90-day public comment period after the publication of the draft EIS in August 2011."
"Sidetrack" might have been the more operative term: Last October, Coronado officials finally released their long-awaited DEIS. Ultimately, the analysis was a sobering dose of bipolar bureaucracy. While acknowledging the potential violation of air- and water-quality standards—and the destruction of a popular public resource—it finally argued for the mine's approval. The 1872 Mining Law perpetually lurked in the shadows.
Among key findings of the DEIS:
• Groundwater available for area residents could be greatly reduced as the mine pumps what it needs to process ore.
• It is expected to potentially violate Arizona aquifer water quality standards.
• It will likely have heavy impacts on surrounding riparian areas along Cienega Creek.
• Heightened risks will exist along area roadways—including scenic Arizona State Route 83—such as potential spills of hazardous chemicals.
• Damage to historic and cultural and archaeological sites is a given.
True, the alternative preferred by the Forest Service would shift the mine tailings up into Upper Barrel Canyon and lower Wasp Canyon. That would push them farther away from sensitive habitant in McCleary Canyon.
But perhaps the most-immediate impact of the DEIS was disdain for the quality of the analysis itself, compiled by the Forest Service after three long years of supposedly arduous study.
"The document is fundamentally flawed," says Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry, a longtime opponent of the project. "It's incomplete, and in fact, in certain locations states that it doesn't have information or is waiting for information. I don't know how you make judgments based on a lack of facts."
Huckelberry has his own theories about why the DEIS was such a disappointment. "One, it's a complicated process," he says. "And two, the Forest Service, by the nature of the process, has relied exclusively on the proponent (Augusta) to prepare the technical documents. So those documents are going to be biased to begin with. ... I think that's why you see so much contradictory information."
And that, he says, "certainly makes litigation a very real possibility over any decision that is made by the Forest Service."
Soon after the DEIS release, Huckelberry dispatched a snarky letter to Coronado officials asking that they issue a supplemental environmental impact statement to fill in the gaps. "In short," Huckelberry wrote, "the DEIS is so deficient, it has short-circuited the public-comment process."
He says forest officials ignored repeated requests for additional studies regarding everything from fugitive dust and geochemistry to the socioeconomic impacts.
Ultimately, Huckelberry blames "the artificial pressure-cooker that (Augusta) is largely responsible for. They've run a very effective public-relations campaign: 'Let's forget the facts and repeat the mantra.' Repeat it long enough, and it becomes the truth."
But Coronado Supervisor Jim Upchurch defends the DEIS as a work in progress. "Essentially, what we have is a draft," he says. "You put that out for review, and we expect people to come up with errors, omissions, things that need to be improved, things that need be fixed. That's why you do a draft.
"We have 19,000 comments, and so there are lots of things to wade through to determine what needs to be changed, amended, improved."
Upchurch also dismisses concerns that all the meetings and all those comments are just an exercise in futility, considering that Coronado officials plan to approve the mine regardless. "I wouldn't buy that argument," he says. "I think what we're trying to do is come up with the best possible plan or project that we can. If people aren't willing to participate in how that can happen, I don't think that helps the process.
"It's not just whether you have a mine or not. If you're going to have a mine, how can you design the best possible mine that there is?"
As to charges that the Forest Service is starting from the presumption that the mine is a done deal, "that's not my position," he says. "It's the law that if a mining proponent has a valid claim on a national forest, then they can mine."
While the Forest Service may be unwilling to throw a wrench in the works, Pima County is not. In September, the county's Department of Environmental Quality denied the necessary air-quality permit for Augusta. According to director Ursula Kramer, Augusta didn't offer a compelling argument that federal air-quality standards could be met by its plan.
Augusta responded by threatening a lawsuit against Pima County, and floating plans to ask that oversight of the permit be handed to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. That seems a long shot: ADEQ spokesman Mark Shaffer stresses that there' "is no certainty" his department would accept oversight.
The crowd at the U.S. Forest Service draft-analysis meeting was starting to thin. Among a smattering of folks leaving the Sahuarita auditorium were Green Valley retirees Philip Stough and his wife, Dorothy, as well as their pal Sarah Freeman. Philip Stough didn't care a bit for the heckling of Ron Barber.
"It was very rude," he said.
That only added to his already fixed feelings. "The first impression is that the mine is here with money, and they hand out all these tags," he said, referring to the green fists. "We're opposed to it. It's going to be a political decision, anyway, and Forest Service has probably already made up their mind."
Dorothy Stough agreed. "But the thing I'm most concerned about is water," she said. "I don't care how much treatment they (promise). I truly believe that water is our most-precious resource. It's called life. And I would hate to see the water be ruined."
Sarah Freeman shaded her eyes with a raised hand. Aesthetics are her thing. "I've been here 30 years, and I hike regularly," she said. "And I just don't believe that it's not going to affect the view for all these people who moved in for that view."
Over at a truck adorned with anti-mine posters, Mark Williams and Greg Shinsky were chatting with passers-by. Williams couldn't hide his sarcasm. "Rosemont did a great job of getting folks together, and their PR machine was really awesome," he said. "I was so proud of them in there during Ron Barber's speech."
He pauses. Then his voice drops. "That was shameful," he said.
But Shinsky, who lives within earshot of Arizona State Highway 83, was upbeat. "I'm much more optimistic as time goes on," he said. "I thought we maybe had a 10 percent chance of doing anything on this in 2006, and now I'm very optimistic. Everything that Rosemont has been putting out is good news, and there's nothing about the extended destruction or pollution or upsetting the flora or fauna. All the information we've tried to get from them is either misleading or out-and-out lies."
But over at the Augusta hospitality wagon, perspectives were a bit different. Garry Smith was standing off to the side. He said he does a fair amount of prospecting in the desert. "This is the symptom of a much bigger deal," he said. "The whole thing was the government: They make rules, but they don't have to go by them. That gets me very, very upset."
So it went, on that afternoon of uproar and cloudy skies. To wrap things up, I looked for Rosemont CEO Rod Pace, hoping to ask a few questions. Yet he was nowhere to be seen. A few days after the meeting, I phoned his office. A few days after that, I phoned again. Much later, I finally received a call back—from yet another Rosemont PR hack.
But at that point, it seemed, all my questions had been answered.