Hard Rock, Hard Truth

Is mining right for the Southern Arizona of today?

In its fight to dig a copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, a Canadian-based company has employed at least two public-relations firms, recruited miners as pep squads and helped foster an online "friends" group.

To woo locals, Augusta Resource Corp. has also pledged to build a Central Arizona Project pipeline to Green Valley, to scour away any toxic remnants from its strip mine and to generally leave the depleted landscape fresher than a baby's behind.

But underlying this schmooze offensive are critically serious questions about whether a mining operation would benefit the local economy--as Augusta vigorously claims--or whether it might strike a serious blow to our vital tourism trade, while draining government coffers for such things as road repairs as required by a huge industrial project.

Last year, a study commissioned by the company claimed the mine would generate around 500 jobs annually. However, Nils Urman, community and economic development director for the city of Nogales, takes such claims with a grain of salt. "It's easy to discuss creating jobs," he says. "But nobody goes back later to verify what jobs have really been created. And anybody who says they've created a job has always had help" from some other factor in the local economy.

Still, even if Augusta has overblown the positive economics of a mine, it's true that at least some well-paying jobs would be offered.

"And mining jobs normally pay two and three times as much as entry-level tourism jobs," says Bill Hogan, an Asarco employee and president of United Steelworkers Local 937. "If I had a choice of whether I'd rather see Tucson's economy expand by 3,000 tourism jobs or 400 mining jobs, I'd rather have mining jobs. That's just the way I look it."

Kimberly Schmitz is a spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Tucson Convention and Visitors Bureau. Although she won't debate the merits of mining versus tourism, she says the impact of tourists on Southern Arizona's economy is enormous. "We recently did a study showing that the tourism industry draws approximately 3.9 million domestic overnight visitors to our community every year. That's just overnight visitors, and doesn't include day trips or international visitors."

Not surprisingly, those travelers pump lots of money--up to an estimated $2.3 billion annually--in this area. "That's direct spending," says Schmitz. "And people directly or indirectly employed by tourism number around 40,000 in this community. I'd say that's very significant for a community of 1 million people."

Other studies show similar numbers. Last year, for example, the Environment Arizona Research and Policy Center released a study showing that Arizona's national forests draw $2.2 billion in annual tourist revenue. The natural preserves include the Coronado National Forest, right next to the proposed Rosemont Mine. In fact, a portion of the Coronado would actually be used for mining operations.

"People come here to visit those last wild places," says center spokesman Erik Magnuson "If they couldn't come here and didn't have this wilderness to enjoy, they're going to go somewhere else."

That impact is felt firsthand by outdoors-oriented retailers such as Dave Baker, owner of the Summit Hut in Tucson. Everyone from rock climbers to casual hikers frequent his shop, Baker says. And they don't journey to Southern Arizona for exquisite views of urban sprawl or a strip mine. "The thing about those natural areas is that, once you've crossed the threshold of developing them, reversing that is very difficult."

To counteract that perspective, mine proponents have created a Web site called Friends of Rosemont Copper (friendsofrosemont.com), which claims thousands of supporters. Manny Armenta is a miner and an official with the United Steelworkers District 12, which reaches from Idaho to Arizona. He was among those who established the Web site, and he says there's an army of Augusta supporters among various miners' unions he's contacted. "The Steelworkers in Arizona alone, at the Silverbell and Mission and Ray operations, and people I represent, just those total over a thousand. They believe it's a good thing."

Armenta likewise criticizes government leaders who argue that tourism has replaced mining as this region's prime economic engine. "I do strongly disagree with that," Armenta says. "People can't make a living in Tucson out of the tourism business. Ask the people in the different hotels how much they earn. Or ask the people who work at McDonald's and Circle K and different places."

For many like Armenta and Hogan, this fiscal argument boils down to which kind of job one prefers. Still, other qualifiers are hard to ignore. For instance, mining jobs may pay better, but they employ vastly fewer people than Southern Arizona's hospitality industry. And tourism doesn't end its run with a big ugly hole in the ground.

In other words, mining employment comes with a hefty environmental and economic price tag. That fact was noted earlier this month, when another study showed that the Rosemont Mine would actually be an economic drain for rural Pima County and Santa Cruz County. (See "Backroads Boondoggle," Currents, Feb. 21.)

For one thing, mineworkers are likely to come from Tucson, which would do little to help small towns nearest the mine--the very communities bearing the brunt of increased truck traffic and environmental damage.

"We do agree that mining jobs are good-paying jobs," says Ian Wilson, a spokesman for the Sonoran Institute, which compiled the report. "But very few benefits accrue directly to those communities that are most impacted, where most of the negative affects and the risks associated with that mine take place."

And it is those communities--Sonoita, Patagonia, Elgin--that are heavily dependent upon tourists traveling to the area for hiking, camping and other outdoor activities. That's why many consider the mine a risky gamble, governed by the whims of metals markets that can dip as easy as they rise.

Either way, says Nils Urman, the Rosemont Mine would be a big step in the wrong direction. "I'm not against mining," he says. "I'm just against bad business plans. In economic development today, the conversation isn't about job creation, but more about creating long-term wealth in a community--jobs, education, opportunity." However, Augusta and its backers "aren't having that conversation."

Instead, the Canadian-based company will be focused on pleasing its investors, he says. "Where will the money go? To the shareholders of a foreign company. It's really capital flight--all the profits wrung out of the mine sure won't be reinvested here."

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