The View from López Pass

Copper vs Nature

The Place

[+]Mining History…

López Pass sits at 5305 feet above sea level in the middle section of Santa Rita Ridge, the northern arm of the Santa Rita Mountains in southern Arizona. It offers an expansive view – west to the Santa Cruz Basin, and east to the Ciénega Basin. On its slopes are the leftovers from two ghost towns, remnants of the copper mining boom that began in the 1870’s, continued fitfully until the end of World War I, and then gradually dwindled to nothing: Helvetia to the west, and Rosemont to the east. Both were once active and crowded mining camps with crushers and smelters, assay offices, several hundred residents, hotels, schools, saloons… The people are gone, the buildings are mostly gone, but much copper remains, millions of pounds, more accessible now with new mining methods and worth billions of dollars.

The Climb

López Pass from below the López homestead (Rick Bowman)

López Pass from below the López homestead (Rick Bowman)

Dos Aguas recently climbed up to López Pass to approximate a raven’s eye view of the Rosemont Mine project. The route crosses from Barrel Canyon, the site of the Old Rosemont settlement, into McCleary Canyon, climbs almost to New Rosemont, turns north toward Sycamore Canyon (on foot from here), passes the old López homestead, and then heads west up the slope of Santa Rita Ridge. All the roads from Old Rosemont to the top of the ridge were constructed for vehicles – wagons first and later trucks – but time and water have taken a toll. Some sections are washed out, and the roadbed is often littered with loose gravel and large rocks. On the climb the vegetation changes from grass and mesquite scrub, to hackberry and sycamore, to oak and juniper.

At the top, in the saddle of the pass, a large white sign faces east. “Future Site of 138 kV Transmission Line. Tucson Electric Power.” Away from the sign one can see west across the Santa Cruz Valley to the Sierrita and the Baboquivari Mountains, and east to the Ciénega Valley and the Empire, Whetstone and the Mustang Mountains.

North from López Pass along the east brow of the ridge winds a jeep track, as they call it now, open to the foothills below and the Empire and Whetstone Mountains on the far side of the valley. A strong west wind whistled up and over the ridge, aiming for any exposed form on the down side, sometimes missing. In a quarter of a mile the track ends in a tailings pile at least 100 years old. Someone dug a hole in these rocks, and hauled the ore by wagon down the hill, to either Rosemont or Helvetia. The adit is filled in now so what remains is a small circle of gravel, just big enough to turn a VW Beetle, if it could ever make the climb. A lone juniper grows on the outer edge of the circle, giving a small patch of shade from the early morning spring sun. Dos Aguas sat down in the shade, facing southeast to the Mustangs and listening to the wind.

The Project

Scale Model of Rosemont Mine, viewed from the South. The pit is colored white; the waste rock and tailings are pink. (Courtesy Pima County Administrator's Office)

Scale Model of Rosemont Mine, viewed from the South. The pit is colored white; the waste rock and tailings are pink. (Courtesy Pima County Administrator’s Office)

Rosemont Copper, a subsidiary of Augusta Resource Corporation, has a 21-year plan to mine primarily copper but also molybdenum, silver and gold from the east side of this ridge by means of an open pit nearly 3000 feet deep. The operation of the mine will cover more than 14,000 acres. (See the accompanying photo of a project scale model commissioned by the Pima County Administrator’s Office, a mine opponent. The model was first displayed in 2011, and is based on an earlier mine plan of operations.)

[+]The Deposit…

The Mine Plan of Operations has been under development and review since 2006. It has local support, including multiple Chambers of Commerce and construction industry groups, who mention the jobs created and the tax revenue generated. But it has also met significant resistance from various Arizona organizations, including several Pima County government officials, two local US Congressman, two southern Arizona Indian tribes, numerous environmental groups as well as local residents who point to pollution of air and water and environmental disruption. In the review process hundreds of studies and reports have been completed on the mine’s impacts such as local water quantity and quality, air quality, noise, light pollution for nearby astronomy observatories, wildlife – including jaguar, orchids, long-nosed bats and the Palmer agave on which they feed, leopard frogs, destruction of archeological sites, and “scenic integrity” of the area. Water issues appear frequently in these discussions and arguments: how will the huge excavations and the ore processing influence the water table, drainage patterns, and water quality, and what will be the quality of water which eventually will accumulate in the empty pit. Before any mine operations can begin many permissions and permits are required from numerous Federal and Arizona offices (Arizona Corporate Commission, Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, US Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish and Wildlife Service, etc.). Many of those have already been issued, but overall project approval is the responsibility of the US Forest Service. That decision on approval has been delayed several times. If approved, Rosemont is projected to become the third largest copper mine in the United States.

The Discussion

[+]The Boy and the Beast…

The Rosemont Mine proposal has become an Arizona focus for the long-standing tug-of-war between preserving nature or developing our natural resources, between protecting the environment or promoting business and development, between enjoying beauty or engineering utility. The discussions are often loud, sometimes acrimonious, usually either-or. There are many versions of what should happen at Rosemont, many descriptions of which ‘beast’ we should kill. (See the accompanying Pima Indian legend, The Boy and the Beast.) At Dos Aguas we focus on the stories.

A Visitor

In a few minutes Dos Aguas heard sliding on the rock behind, and turned to the noise. A short, wiry man stood where the adit once opened. He wore leather boots with ankle-high tops, scuffed, caked with dust. Grey cotton pantalones were stuffed into the boots. An almost-white cotton shirt was buttoned at the neck and draped with a red bandana. On his head sat a once-white, leather hat with the brim folded up sharply on each side, and the round crown dented once in the middle. He smiled, very white teeth – a few broken – against the wrinkled brown face and the grey mustache.

Donde está la mina?” he asked, in Spanish. Where is the mine? “For many years I see them drilling holes and pumping water and writing notes,” he said, “but I don’t see any mine.”

“Are you here often?” Dos Aguas asked.

“I have freedom to come see Rosemont at each full moon, in the places I used to work. So I find a place in the morning shade and watch what happens.”

“Yes, they want to mine again, but they don’t yet have permission,” Dos Aguas answered.

Perdóneme. Me llamo Francisco,” he said, “a sus órdenes.” Pardon me, my name is Francisco, at your service. “Francisco Eduardo Valdés Acuña, but everyone here called me Paco.” Called, in the past tense. “With your permission I will sit down.”

“With pleasure,” Dos Aguas answered. Paco sat in the shade and crossed his legs under himself. “Where did you come from?” Dos Aguas asked.

“Sonora,” he answered. “Hermosillo. But I lived in Rosemont for more than 50 years – from 1877 until the autumn of 1929. I ran cows in these hills. I worked in the mines – some days in this mine here.” He pointed to the scar in the hill. “I drove an ore wagon to the railroad, I helped Juan López with his cows, on both sides of the mountain. And in the last years I worked for the Vail brothers tending cattle here in the Rosemont sector. At roundup I was sometimes at the Empire, but otherwise I camped at New Rosemont.” He swung his head, indicating south. “I shared one of the small platform tents with another vaquero.” Another cowboy. “I made very good tortillas,” he said with a smile.

“What permissions do they need for the mine?” Paco asked.

“It’s a long list,” Dos Aguas answered. “Permission to dig a hole more than a kilometer deep, to put the tailings on government land, to use lights for working at night. Permission to pipe water here from the Santa Cruz valley, to haul the copper out on the public road…”

“Ay!” he said, shaking the fingers on his right hand, and laughing. “Permission was not so important in my day. Men swarmed over these mountains like ants, scratching the rocks, digging, building roads, using dynamite, bringing cows, building shacks and houses. If they asked permission, it was only afterward.”

“What work did you have here after the copper boom ended?”

“I was always a vaquero,” Paco answered. “It was in my bones. After the government required leases for grazing, the big ranches controlled almost everything here. So I gave up my cows and worked for the Empire Ranch. Once in a while I would haul ore, but mostly I checked and branded calves, made sure of water, rode circles of the herd.” He stood up, face in the sun, staring down into McCleary Canyon.

“There are many memories written on these hills,” he continued. “Juan and I worked together almost every day through all our years here. See that bolsa below, in the middle of the arroyo?” He removed his hat and waved it down the hill toward the wash dammed to form a tank, or pond. “Juan and I built that bolsa the first time, along with two vaqueros hired by Vail. It wasn’t so deep then, but it caught enough water in July to keep the cows until autumn.” He put his hat back, and snugged it down to touch both ears.

“Juan and I were friends since childhood, and I followed him here to Arizona. He was always my anchor.” Paco looked down to the old López homestead. “But when he took his family to Tucson, it was in the summer of 1915, I decided to remain here. I didn’t see how I could adjust myself to life in the city. Too many people, too much noise. Without the López family, Rosemont was never the same.”

The Hole

“It will be a hole?” Paco asked. “Like those over in the Sierritas?” He pointed over the ridge to the west.

[+]The Pit…


“Where will the hole be?”

“Beginning high on the slope where the Chicago and Sweet Bye and Bye mines were, and running east toward the Martínez Ranch.” Dos Aguas looked south along the ridge. “You won’t see much of it from here, but it will be clear from Hart’s Butte. As they dig the hole they will bury Old Rosemont and the VR Ranch with the waste rock and the tailings, almost as high as New Rosemont.”

“What will happen to the hole after the mine is finished?” Paco asked.

“They won’t cover it up, as they did this mine here.” Dos Aguas nodded toward the scar in the rock, with no sign of an opening. “They say the hole will gradually fill with water over many years to form a big lake. And they argue about whether all the digging here will reduce the water in Ciénega Creek over in the valley. Some say yes, others say no.”

“How does anyone know the answer?”

“You’re right, no one knows for sure,” Dos Aguas said. “Engineers have studied the creeks and springs and rocks in order to predict what will happen after the mine.”

Sacaton Grass (Courtesy of the Riester Foundation)

Sacaton Grass (Courtesy of the Riester Foundation)

“I also saw some nasty arguments between Negocio y Naturaleza.” Business and Nature. “You know the Sacaton grass over in the Ciénega Valley? It’s such a beautiful sight,” Paco said. “So much grass blowing in the wind. When I first came to Rosemont it was very peaceful there – beautiful to watch at sunrise, incredible to see how the antelope and rabbits, the coyotes and cows and men were all well fed by that grass. But then came too many cows,” he said, and paused. “And all those cows cost me my novia,” he added. My fiancée.

“And the Rosemont cattle?” Paco changed topics. “What will happen to the cattle?”

“The mining company now runs about 400 head on Rosemont Ranch and the leased parcels. They plan to move them elsewhere at the beginning, but bring them back later to help reseed the tailings.”

Grácias a Dios!” Paco said. Thank God. “Copper earns many dollars, but the land needs animals to keep the brush from taking over.”

As the sun climbed higher the shade from the juniper shrank. Paco squinted at the eastern sky, and stood up. “Time to work – or find better shade,” he said. He extended his hand to Dos Aguas. “Don’t forget, I am here every full moon,” Paco said. “I would be grateful for any news you can bring – maybe even a nip of mescal.” He laughed at himself, broken teeth gleaming in the sunlight. “Another time I will tell you the story of my novia, Anora,” he said. “Que le vaya con Dios!

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