This has been a scorching year for the Coronado National Forest. First, some of its premier Southern Arizona highlands were ravaged by summer infernos.
Now the Forest Service's long-awaited draft environmental report on a proposed copper mine in the Santa Rita Mountains is drawing fire left and right.
But critics say the Coronado's own bumbling ignited the latest fury. Not that such bumbling is uncharacteristic when it involves the hopes of Canadian-based Augusta Resource Corporation to dig an open-pit mine in the lovely Rosemont Valley south of Tucson.
Consider that the Forest Service haplessly used public-relations flacks from Augusta's subsidiary, Rosemont Copper, to organize public hearings on the draft report.
Or that it also managed to infuriate Tohono O'odham tribal leaders by failing to tell them that two such meetings were to be held at the tribe's Desert Diamond Casino. This might not have caused such a ruckus were the tribe not vehemently opposed to Augusta's project, fearing its impact on sacred sites in the Santa Ritas. The tribe is actually a cooperating agency in the project-evaluation process, and thus demands an official place at the table.
Tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr. was not amused.
"We support the Forest Service's stated efforts to ensure meaningful public comments about this project," he wrote to Coronado supervisor Jim Upchurch. "We look forward to providing input in this process as the proposed Rosemont Mine will have dramatic negative impacts on the Tohono O'odham Nation. ... It is further troubling that Rosemont Copper and its PR firm arranged these public meetings, not the Forest Service."
According to Norris, that close cooperation "raises serious questions about the objectivity of this entire process."
Upchurch responded to Norris in a letter thick with mea culpas and promises to include the tribe in future decisions. But Upchurch also defended the role of Augusta's propaganda machine. "As is customary with most large projects proposed on National Forest ... lands," he wrote, "the proponent (Augusta) is contributing funds to offset the costs for the meeting locations as well as funding deposits for the facilities."
All final decisions about where and when to hold those meetings were made by Upchurch, says Coronado spokeswoman Heidi Schewel. She adds that Augusta's P.R. people, at Strongpoint Public Relations, simply helped a short-staffed Forest Service quickly pull the roster together. "We checked out the facilities first, and they were just checking on the availability," she says. "It wasn't anything that carried any decision-making power or influence. It was just logistics—just helping us with the workload."
Still, this isn't the first time Coronado officials have been accused of sharing a relationship with Augusta that's too cozy. Earlier this year, mine opponents filed a lawsuit over the presence of company officials at 13 meetings in 2009 and 2010 with Coronado officials and representatives from other government agencies. Other interested parties—including mine opponents—were not invited.
In June, Senior U.S. District Judge Frank Zapata quashed the lawsuit and refused to grant an injunction to delay release of the draft environmental impact statement. However, he did chide the Forest Service for being "less than prudent" and fostering "an appearance of impropriety" by allowing Rosemont's representatives into those otherwise closed meetings.
Roger Featherstone is director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, a group opposed to Augusta's project. He says Coronado officials apparently haven't learned much from that earlier fracas, "when they were screwing up left and right, letting Augusta and Augusta's contractors (get) too much involved.
"When we went to court over it, we didn't get our injunction, but the judge was pretty strong about the appearance of impropriety on the part of the Forest Service. And then the Forest Service turns right around this time and does the same damn thing: They allow Augusta's P.R. people to set up their meetings for them."
Featherstone suggests that these repeated missteps may be symptoms of a bigger problem. "Is it ingrained in the Forest Service culture that they automatically are going to the proponents of a project for help?" he asks. "At some point, you have to think that this goes deeper than just goofing up three or four times in a row."
Nor did the stumbles end there. While scheduling the impact-statement meetings, forest officials not only angered the Tohono O'odham tribe, but also drew the ire of U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva. In an Oct. 25 letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (the USDA includes the Forest Service), Grijalva criticized Strongpoint's role and chastised the Coronado for failing to observe a required 15-day window between the release of the draft statement and the first public meeting to discuss it.
Grijalva also noted that those meetings had originally been slated for the same dates as popular local events, and questioned whether such scheduling conflicts were pure coincidence.
"The fact that Rosemont's representatives are directly involved with the planning of these public meetings raises obvious questions as to how much influence Rosemont has had in the overall timing, location and structure of these meetings—all important factors in determining a successful public-involvement process," Grijalva wrote. "Rosemont's involvement could at least in part explain why these public hearings were being expedited" in violation of federal regulations.
Notice of the Rosemont DEIS was published in the Federal Register on Oct. 19.The first public meeting to discuss the nearly 900-page draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 22 at the casino.
Schewel says the meetings were scheduled so quickly because the public comment period lasts a mere 90 days. Nonetheless, she says, the Forest Service is predictably catching hell from both sides: Rosemont officials complain of a dragging process, while mine opponents carp about being rushed. But according to Schewel, the Coronado is trying to drive down the middle. "There is a lot of opposition, and there are people who are for (the mine)," she says. "And professionally, we are neutral."
Although the Coronado has since pushed those meetings back, the initial schedule left Featherstone with one impression: The Coronado had an agenda.
"And that was to bow to (Augusta's) wishes and just kind of ram this stuff through," he says. "It makes no sense from the Forest Service's standpoint to have the first meeting just a couple of days after the official notice in the Federal Register. ... Common sense dictates that when you have a document that's 3 or 4 inches thick, and you have a 90-day comment period, it just doesn't make sense to rush the first meetings."