The Battle for Oak Flat

Our June 2016 issue features Kelly Vaughn's story on the Oak Flat land exchange. Here, we offer perspectives from three organizations leading the fight against the exchange, plus an interactive "story map" on the situation.

Oak Flat Online Extras
  • Q&A: Sandy Bahr, Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter

    Where the environmental organization stands on the Oak Flat land exchange.

    The Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by John Muir, is one of the nation’s most prominent environmental organizations, with more than 2 million followers. Sandy Bahr is the director of the organization's Grand Canyon Chapter and spoke to Arizona Highways on behalf of Sierra Club members’ position on the Resolution Copper land exchange.

    Why do the members of the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club oppose the Oak Flat land exchange? 
    It’s a big ripoff. The American public is getting chump change in return for this ecological treasure. The lands that are offered aren’t comparable. We look at the value of the land: What does it provide from a wildlife perspective? What does it provide from unique plant communities? What does it provide recreationally? Culturally? You can’t just say, “Oh, here’s this land. We’re all set.” We’re not set, at all.

    There are all kinds of other issues associated with this proposed mine. The way that they’re planning to do this mine is what they call “block cave mining.” So, they do these underground explosions, haul all the material out and don’t put it back in. There will be a huge tailings pile on the Tonto National Forest. There will be metals, dust and huge concerns about the air and water quality. They will go very deep and pump water out that can affect surface waters in areas such as Queen Creek and Devil’s Canyon.

    Oak Flat has been protected from mining for over 50 years. It was first protected by President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower. At the time, it was done to protect the investment the American people had made in the area as a campground, birding area, climbing area and picnicking area. It also has significant cultural value and has long been used by the Apache people, who have consistently brought up their concerns about this exchange and the associated mine. We’re opposed to the swap and the destruction of a place that has so many environmental and cultural values. It is truly irreplaceable.

    What makes the Oak Flat area so valuable?
    We think the values that Oak Flat provides — environmental, cultural and recreational — are things that are sustainable. Copper mining is here and [then] gone. It’s boom and bust. When copper prices are high, they go in and haul it out like crazy. When they fall, they suspend operation and lay off however many people. The word "mining" means you’re depleting — you’re taking something. By its very nature, it’s not sustainable. 

    Why we let the private profits of one company override the larger public interest — that is, protecting the plants, animals, providing recreational opportunities and protecting its cultural values — is crazy. San Carlos speaks for themselves, but to me, it’s truly outrageous that the Congress has been so disrespectful of their concerns and going so far as to say that the area isn’t important to them. We need to do better, as a country, in recognizing and protecting those values. This project is an exclamation point in how that is not being done.

    How involved is the Sierra Club in actively opposing the exchange?
    The Forest Service started the National Environmental Policy Act [review] and have scheduled public meetings in Queen Valley, Globe, Superior and Gilbert. We’ve asked for them to add additional meetings in Phoenix and Tucson, because there are a lot of people that live in those cities that are concerned about this proposal. Also, we indicated that they should add one at San Carlos, if the San Carlos requested one.

    The Forest Service has to consider and respond to any comments with substance. It’s an opportunity to get issues to be considered and make it clear what a harmful project this is. People objecting to this project can be used to show members of Congress that they made a huge mistake in allowing this to be included on an unrelated bill. They have an opportunity to fix it.

    More from the Sierra Club

  • Oak Flat Story Map

    A look at the lands offered in exchange for Oak Flat.

  • Q&A: Robin Silver, Center for Biological Diversity

    Why the wildlife advocacy group is against the land exchange.

    The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit organization that advocates for the protection of threatened species and rare habitats. Robin Silver is one of the organization’s founders and spoke to Arizona Highways about why the group is against the proposed land exchange.

    Why do members of the Center for Biological Diversity oppose the Oak Flat land exchange?
    There’s a riparian area in Oak Flat called Devil’s Canyon. Riparian areas, particularly in Arizona, are very special and very rare. That is the type of habitat that we protect. We are the reason there’s water in Fossil Creek. We are the reason the springs aren’t going to dry up in the Grand Canyon. We’re the reason why there’s water in the San Pedro [River]. Devil’s Canyon is not of the same reputation, nationally or internationally, as the Grand Canyon, Fossil Creek or the San Pedro, but in Arizona, it’s nonetheless very important.

    What makes these riparian areas so valuable?
    Riparian areas are incredibly rare in Arizona. If you look at the percentage of riparian areas that still have year-round water, you’re under 0.01 percent of the historical habitat. If your look at riparian areas that are intermittently water, you’re still under 1 percent. We’ve had huge losses. 

    How involved are members of the Center for Biological Diversity in actively opposing the land exchange?
    Very much so. We will ultimately stop this, and it will be back in front of Congress again. At this point, the exchange is a done legislative deal. However, the miners did not secure a place to dump their garbage. So, we will fight them on their tailings pile. They’re trying to get another 4,000-plus acres of public land on the eastern front of the Superstitions, and no one would stand for that. There’s people living out there. We are actively opposing this.

    We’re also actively supporting our Native American partners. This is the biggest coalition of tribes that’s ever come together. In my 30 years of being an activist, I have never seen a situation where you have nearly every Indian tribe pass a resolution in opposition. That’s more than 500 tribes.

    We will also be actively participating in surveys of unknown species in the area.

    More from the Center for Biological Diversity

  • Q&A: Matt Clark, Tucson Audubon Society

    How the bird-conservation group views the proposed development of Oak Flat.

    The Tucson Audubon Society leads Southeastern Arizona efforts to engage people in the conservation of birds and their habitats. Via email, Matt Clark, a Tucson Audubon conservation analyst, answered questions about the Oak Flat land exchange on behalf of the group.

    Why does the Tucson Audubon Society oppose the Oak Flat land exchange?
    Since 2005, the Tucson Audubon Society has been on record opposing the Oak Flat land exchange legislation because it is not in the public’s best interest, and because it would facilitate the development of the Resolution Copper mine, to which Tucson Audubon is also opposed. 

    If built, the Resolution Copper mine will destroy sensitive wildlife habitat and irreplaceable cultural and recreational values; consume vast amounts of water and energy in an arid environment; create large amounts of polluted wastewater and generate a cubic mile-worth of mine tailings that are proposed to be dumped on public lands; have a lack of direct benefit to the vast majority of Arizonans; and leave the public with a long-term legacy of pollution and other negative effects to the environment. 

    What makes the Oak Flat area so valuable?
    Oak Flat is a very scenic and culturally valuable site that provides habitat for a wide diversity of birds and other wildlife. Oak Flat and surrounding public lands provide an important refuge for wildlife amid growing development pressures and provide a sustainable birding, tourism and recreation destination. Recreational activities in the area include hiking, canyoneering, camping, world-class rock climbing, birding, wildlife watching, bouldering, photography and more. Due to the proposed method of mining causing significant subsidence, these cultural and public uses of the Oak Flat landscape would be forever lost or diminished if the mine is developed. 

    Over 125 bird species have been documented at Oak Flat by the birding community. Several bird species identified by wildlife managers as species of conservation concern, due to population declines detected in portions of their ranges, have been sighted at Oak Flat, including the black‐chinned Sparrow, Costa’s hummingbird, gray vireo and Lewis’ woodpecker. The proposed mine would completely destroy the oak woodland habitat at Oak Flat proper, and threatens to dewater increasingly rare riparian habitats in the adjacent Gaan and Queen Creek canyons. Stands of sycamores and Arizona alders in Gaan Canyon that provide important wildlife habitat would be put at risk by extensive groundwater use. In addition, the endangered Arizona hedgehog cactus has been documented in the Oak Flat area and could be further threatened with extinction.

    How involved is the Tucson Audubon Society in actively opposing the land exchange?
    Tucson Audubon has been actively involved in opposing the Oak Flat land exchange since 2005. Tucson Audubon has regularly communicated to members of Congress, agency representatives and our membership regarding our organization’s concerns related to the proposed land exchange and mine proposal. Tucson Audubon is an active member group of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, which opposes the land exchange. Through the coalition, Tucson Audubon contributes to reviewing and developing comments for the National Environmental Impact Statement currently under development for the land exchange, mine and ancillary facilities. 

    Tucson Audubon supports the Save Oak Flat Act, which would repeal the provisions under the National Defense Authorization Act providing for a land exchange between the Department of Agriculture and Resolution Copper Mining LLC.

    More from the Tucson Audubon Society