Probing Questions

Is the Coronado rubber-stamping exploration permits?

All through the West, they sprang up, tough little mining towns prospering for a few decades before being abandoned for the desert to reclaim. Mostly, the desert was happy to oblige.

But the mines themselves were different. They've lingered on the landscape, gutted of their riches and left to rot.

Their ugly scars still pock the hills around Patagonia, a sleepy burg due south of Tucson. In its time, hard-rock mining was a vital part of Patagonia's lifeblood. These days, the town prospers from tourism. Folks alight here by the score to boat, bird watch or romp through the surrounding national forest. That makes mining a relic, an old business model not exactly meshing with the new.

But sometimes, the past just won't stay dead. A surge in mineral prices have tugged a flurry of prospectors back into the hills around Patagonia, eagerly sniffing out new strikes.

This is not a rare dilemma. Rural economies now reliant on the allure of forests and other federal lands are not enthusiastic about the damage mining can wreak. But at the same time, say critics, forest officials may be hustling the mine revival along.

In particular, conservationists cite the liberal use of "categorical exclusions." As their name implies, these handy administrative tools contain categories of projects that may be excluded from full reviews--assessments otherwise required by the National Environmental Policy Act. While initially created to reduce paperwork for routine maintenance and other low-impact work on federal lands, the exclusions are now being used for a growing variety of projects.

For examples, look no further than our own Coronado National Forest. Recently, Santa Catalina District Ranger Larry Raley sparked a controversy by invoking an exclusion to approve road reconstruction in flood-damaged Sabino Canyon. And in the past 12 months, Sierra Vista District Ranger Doug Hardy used categorical exclusions while approving four mining-exploration permits near Patagonia.

Why the exclusionary upswing? Critics point to the Bush administration. Categorical exclusions were promulgated by the Council on Environmental Quality, a coordinating body under the White House umbrella. And while the exclusions have been around for awhile, they've found new popularity in this White House.

"The Bush administration ... has encouraged the Forest Service to wildly expand its categorical exclusions," wrote the National Parks Conservation Association, in a letter last year to the Council on Environmental Quality. Equally troubling, wrote the NPCA, "has been the CEQ's role in enabling agencies to evade NEPA requirements."

Given the current mining upsurge, many say it's a particularly bad time to limit the NEPA's use. While that process may be cumbersome, they argue, it does mandate full citizen participation and thorough reviews before land-use decisions are made.

Brian Segee is a former Tucsonan, and now staff attorney with Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C. "When the Forest Service chooses to circumvent public comment and transparency in its environmental analysis," he says, "it actually creates controversy, where there wouldn't be controversy if they just did things right the first time."

In its letter to the CEQ, the National Parks Conservation Association noted the large number of lawsuits already prompted by categorical exclusions--suits ultimately forcing federal agencies to conduct extra analysis anyway, just to defend their decisions in court.

It all could just be dismissed as Beltway policy wrangling--except that it's suddenly become very real in the hills around Patagonia. "Our biggest concern," says Segee, "is the potential for several new, large, open-pit copper mines within one isolated mountain range.

The use of exclusions encourages the Coronado to consider each mine in isolation, he says, "with the result that the environmental impacts are being obscured and trivialized."

But District Ranger Hardy says public meetings were held to discuss the permits. And he contends that categorical exclusions make sense. "They save time, energy and manpower. The intent of the law is to identify a broad range of activities that take place on federal lands that do not meet significance in law."

He says that includes mining probes. "Exploration work can mean it's almost non-ground-disturbing. Sometimes, it involves staking lines or taking soil samples. Other (permits) involve drilling in existing (sites) or sometimes access to private land."

Exploration permits issued by Hardy's district in the past 12 months include drilling in Providencia Canyon, and at the nearby Four Metals mine. The Four Metals is currently applying for a new permit. The Patagonia Jewel is being worked for turquoise just south of Patagonia. And a Canadian company has spruced up a road leading to the old Hardshell mine.

The Hardshell permit involved a "road project to maintain a forest-system road," says Richard Ahern, the Coronado's mineral program manager. "And it was a road we would have maintained, if we had budgeted for it in time." Under its permit, Wildcat Silver Corp. "could not improve (the road) beyond its former glories," he says. "It couldn't be widened or made better."

Meanwhile, Ahern describes as "very sharp" the upswing of mine-related action on the Coronado. "I'd say we've had more proposals of this scope in the last year than we've had in the past five years. We're buried in applications."

Still, he says, it's difficult to gauge the potential overall impact. "I'm not sure how the cumulative affect on the forest resource would come into play, because each individual (project) is impacting its own particular patch."

Either way, under the General Mining Law of 1872, the Forest Service has little leeway to halt such projects outright. "We're neither advocates for or against (mining) proposals," Hardy says. "We have to be a neutral administrator, watching out for interests of the public, relative to the disturbance."

Enacted to encourage Western expansion, the law allows companies to mine on public lands without compensating taxpayers, and with little environmental oversight. Today, this antiquated statute is widely blamed for helping devastate huge swaths of the west.

There is reason for hope, however. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., has introduced a measure in Congress requiring mining companies to pay royalties for mineral extraction on public lands. Rahall's measure would also force cleanup and reclamation of defunct mines, and prohibit mining in wilderness areas deemed particularly sensitive or "of critical environmental concern."

In the meantime, however, Segee says restricting use of categorical exclusions would be a good start. "The Forest Service needs to step back and take a big-picture view of what these mines would do to resources and wildlife in the Patagonia Mountains."

Otherwise, he says, Coronado officials are setting the stage for trouble. "They create a situation where the only remedy is a lawsuit. That's is a waste of Forest Service resources, and it unnecessarily clogs up the court system."

And for what? To answer that question, just visit the hills of Patagonia.

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