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Nature Versus Greed 

Ray Carroll fights against mining companies--and Don Diamond's family--over the Santa Ritas

The phone rings twice before it's answered. On the other end is Mary Rowley, owner of Strongpoint LLC. Strongpoint is one of two slick PR firms hired to spin the gouging of a mine from a mountain.

Rowley says her company will "tell the story" of this huge copper operation planned for the precious Santa Rita Mountains south of town.

Oddly, to help weave that instructive tale, Strongpoint recently purchased a bunch of Web site names nearly identical to www.scenicsantaritas.org. And just coincidentally, of course, the latter site is owned by Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a group fighting the very mine Rowley hopes to hype.

Lainie Levick is president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. "I would say that their motive was simply to prevent us from having those domain names, to make things difficult for us," she says of Strongpoint. Levick adds that when she visited one of newly bought Web sites, it attempted to foist spyware onto her computer.

The phone only rings once before it's answered by Pete Zimmerman, owner of Zimmerman and Associates. Mr. Zimmerman is the other PR gun hired to schmooze for the Rosemont mine, which is proposed by a Canadian company called Augusta Resource Corp. But his job is less literally ambitious than Rowley's. "We will help introduce the mine to the community," he says.

Salutations aside, it's not likely that Tucson will get the real Rosemont mine story from smarmy PR honchos. Why? Because the true narrative is one of rich guys getting richer, county leaders waffling and the potential devastation of beautiful and sensitive Southern Arizona wildlands.

Nor is this the first chapter for the Rosemont Valley, stretching lean, lovely and mineral-rich from the Santa Ritas' northern slopes. In the 1990s, mining giant Asarco Inc. also hankered for a copper operation in the same spot. But fierce opposition and plummeting ore prices doomed that plan.

The contested land then fell silent until June 2004, when it was purchased for $4.8 million by Yoram Levy and his partners at Triangle Ventures. As it happens, Levy is son-in-law to legendary land speculator Don Diamond. And some of that Diamond-dust apparently brushed off: Just a few months after the buy, Levy offered Rosemont to Pima County for $11.5 million.

Unfortunately, the county was strapped for cash, and by June 2005, Augusta Resource had bought Levy's 2,760-acre property for $20.8 million.

Experts estimate that Rosemont could produce some $13 billion worth of copper, along with extra gravy from molybdenum and other minerals. Augusta has since submitted a mining plan to the U.S. Forest Service for review. Operation of the 800-acre open-pit mine would require adjacent federal real estate for tailings piles and other waste.

But this land is far more than a pending hole. According to surveys, it's also home to at least 10 threatened plants, a crucial wildlife corridor, and key to countless vital watersheds.

Ultimately, the U.S. Forest Service decides whether Augusta can proceed. The county has also voted on a symbolic thumbs-down, just as it did back in 1997, when it opposed Asarco.

It seems that times have changed. Today, as then, County Supervisor Ray Carroll's district includes the Rosemont. But this time, he's been the only board member to stand up against Augusta. Three times, he has scheduled votes to oppose the mine. Three times, he's been out-voted 4-1. A final showdown is expected at the Board of Supervisors' Dec. 5 meeting.

In a grim report on the mine's potential impacts, County Natural Resources Manager Kerry Baldwin calls 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 writes, "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 ..."

An August report from County Environmental Planner Julia Fonseca is no more encouraging. Fonseca recommends that the Board of Supervisors "renew or clarify its opposition to the mine through a new board resolution ..."

But don't hold your breath.

Augusta's PR team is going full-bore. And to date, the company has packed board meetings with miners demanding a mine. That's left Carroll in a lonely perch.

Nor has Levy been a layabout. Instead, he's been flitting among county officials, pushing the mine. That's raised suspicions of hidden business ties to Augusta. But Augusta Resource denies any such involvement, and Levy bristles at the suggestion.

Instead, Levy says high copper prices make the mine inevitable, and he's just helping reduce its impact. "I felt that I would be able to mitigate a relationship between different parties for the benefit for the community," he says. "It is purely a volunteer approach for the betterment of the community as a whole."

But critics suggest Levy has done quite enough already, and should just retire to the clubhouse with his $16 million booty.

Meanwhile, county supervisors are claiming various stratagems behind their failures to outright condemn the mine. Most, such as District 1 Supervisor Ann Day, contend they are waiting for more information--and hoping for environmental concessions. Pima County can't actually stop the mine, Day says, "so why not extract as much (from Augusta) as we can?"

Ray Carroll doesn't buy it. "My position is that those mountains aren't for sale," he says. "I don't care who owns the mine or who the front people are for the mine. It's not a good idea to decimate the Santa Rita Mountains."

Levy calls that stance futile. "Ray Carroll will have to decide whether he wants to be the hero here or the loser here," Levy says. "One or the other, because the mine is going to happen."

Carroll counters that county opposition carries plenty of heft. "The board's vote in 1997 was a real message to the powers-that-be," he says. "The federal government wants local input. More so today than a decade ago, they're looking for collaboration and input from local governments when they make these kinds of decisions."

Augusta must realize that, too--hence the PR operatives. And perhaps that explains why Strongpoint bought up all those eco-sounding domain names. But we may never know: Extracting straight answers from Rowley is not an easy task.

"We have registered that domain," she says. "It's just part of looking at a variety of domain names that are out there."

But what could a name like Save the Scenic Santa Ritas have to do with the proposed Rosemont mine?

"Well, the mine, or the location proposed for it, is in the Santa Rita Mountains," Rowley says softly.

Lord help us all.

More by Tim Vanderpool

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