Swap Watch

By Janet Mitchell

THE SANTA RITA Mountains, south of town, can be seen from every part of Tucson--deep blue at mid-day, purple in the setting sun, black under the high-piled thunder clouds of summer, or tipped with the white of winter snows.

Enjoy this glorious Sonoran Desert landscape while you can.

Because if an open pit copper mine slated for the northeast flank of the Santa Ritas becomes reality, a 21-mile swath of excavation and tailing piles will slice though the heart of this popular Pima County playground.

But before any mine is excavated, ASARCO, Inc., a New York-based mining company, wants to deal some real estate with the U.S. Forest Service.

The offer on the table would give ASARCO a single 13,272-acre parcel in the Rosemont Ranch area of the Coronado National Forest.

In return, ASARCO would hand over 23 parcels totaling 2,222 acres to the Forest Service. Some are small one-acre parcels in the Chiricahua Mountains, Madera Canyon, and Happy Valley, but the majority of the property is located north of Phoenix.

"Obviously, ASARCO is requesting six times more acreage than it plans to give to the Forest Service," says Randy Serraglio, campaign coordinator of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas Association (SSSR), a local coalition of environmental organizations opposing the land exchange.

ASARCO already owns about 2,000 acres of land in the Rosemont Ranch area. The parcel, formerly national forest land, was strategically removed from public ownership through a 125-year-old mining law that contains no environmental provisions. Now, ASARCO officials say they need the additional land for tailing piles and mine support facilities.

"Without the exchange land, mining on the patented land would make things much more difficult for both the Forest Service and ASARCO," Serraglio says.

Oddly enough, ASARCO agrees. In the company's August 1996 update on the proposed Rosemont Ranch Land Exchange, mining under federal oversight was called "expensive and a hindrance to ASARCO."

THE GAME BEING played out over the Rosemont Ranch area of the Santa Ritas is part of a shift in national policy, a new willingness to cut loose federal land the current administration doesn't deem worth keeping, or that is too expensive to manage. The Rosemont Ranch is merely the latest casualty in a war where no prisoners are taken.

Stevan Christiansen is the Forest Service employee assigned the task of coordinating the Rosemont Ranch Land Exchange. He took the job willingly. Last February, he moved with his wife and two pre-schoolers to Tucson from Wyoming, where he worked as a "forest planner" for the Medicine Bow National Forest.

Christiansen defines his role as "facilitator of public comments." He says he'll manage the project objectively and ensure that all applicable regulations are followed.

"The regulations are pretty tight, but the decision whether or not to allow a land decision is discretionary to the Forest Service," said Christiansen, whose $55,000 annual salary is underwritten by ASARCO.

The story of the Rosemont Ranch land exchange began in 1983, when copper giant ANAMAX proposed exchanging 8.6 acres of private inholdings for 12,941 acres of the Rosemont Ranch area. ANAMAX wanted the acreage to enhance mining of the 1,650 acres of patented land it already owned at Rosemont.

But then the bottom fell out of the copper market in the mid-1980s, and the low-grade ore at Rosemont wasn't worth bothering with. The deal went away before it could be finalized.

Looking to the future, however, the Forest Service decided to up the ante next time around.

Because, according to Christiansen, in its 1986 master plan for Arizona, the Forest Service identified every single one of the 23 parcels ASARCO is currently offering as "nice to acquire."

Conversely, Christiansen said, the 13,272 acres at Rosemont were listed as "base for exchange."

Odd how things just managed to work out like that.

CHRISTIANSEN IS OBVIOUSLY uncomfortable with the perception of the Forest Service being a public policy hypocrite of unprecedented proportions.

Asked why he took this job, he leans forward tensely and replies: "I love my family."

The reality is that the successful handling of the Rosemont Ranch Land Exchange could advance Christiansen's 20-year Forest Service career to the national administrative level. Proceeding with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process the land exchange require gives him job security for at least five years. He's generated a project timeline that extends to the winter of 2003.

FORMER TUCSON MAYOR Tom Volgy recently took a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials in an effort to stop the land exchange before the extensive and expensive NEPA process begins. He says he went "as a private citizen at the request of SSSR."

"It would be crazy to fight a five-year war over this proposal," says Volgy, who is currently a UA political science professor.

"Spending a large sum of taxpayer dollars on a comprehensive analysis of a land exchange proposal that is not reasonable to begin with is not a wise use of federal funds."

Volgy said officials at both the Department of Agriculture and Department of Interior agreed that a land exchange might "make bureaucratic sense but wasn't good public policy." He left with their commitment to review the land exchange proposal, with the possible outcome being cancellation or modification of the 1986 Memorandum of Understanding between the Forest Service and ASARCO.

When the federal government is contemplating action having a broad effect, it's fairly standard practice that the local authorities be consulted first. They weren't. It's this lack of federal notice to Tucson or Pima County officials, this "sneakiness," as the deal's critics call it, that is also of particular concern to Volgy.

"In my 14 years in Tucson City government, the feds never did anything in Pima County without talking to us about it first," he said.

THE DIAMOND-SHAPED scar on the northwest face of the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson testifies to the evils of the General Mining Law of 1872. It recalls the unsuccessful battles fought in the early 1970s to prevent the limestone-quarrying operation that made the scar. The battle was lost because the outdated law gave the mining companies all the advantages.

It still does.

The law says if someone finds a commercial quantity of a valuable hard rock mineral on federal land, the finder has the right to mine--unless the land has been officially removed from mining. There has been no major revision since the law was passed during a time when the government needed to encourage miners to go West.

Obviously, that time has passed.

ASARCO's current ownership of the land where the copper ore body is located in the Santa Ritas was engineered via the antiquated mining law. Initially, Anaconda Copper Co. and its successor patented about 1,650 acres in the 1970s, which ASARCO eventually acquired.

Then, in December 1995, the Clinton Administration reluctantly signed away another 347 acres of national forest in the Rosemont Ranch area of the Santa Ritas to Asarco, the holder of 111 patented lode and millsite claims on the site.

"Let's call this exactly what it is: a bonanza for mining industry fat cats, and a complete bilking of the taxpayer," Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt said in a recent telephone interview.

The once publicly-owned minerals are valued at nearly $3 billion, but cost ASARCO only $1,745.

ASARCO, which posted $2.7 billion in sales last year, will also pay no royalties to taxpayers on copper production at the Rosemont mine.

Other resources extracted from public lands, such as natural gas, oil and surface-mined coal, require a 12.5 percent gross royalty, based upon production. Coal mined underground generates an 8 percent gross royalty. However, protected by the 1872 General Mining Law, hardrock mining for the extraction of gold, silver, copper and other precious metals remains exempt from any royalty payment.

During the past four years, public mineral assets worth $15 billion have been transferred under the law to private mining companies. In return taxpayers have received a total of $23,601.

"It's a double whammy. The public loses both income and title to the lands," says SSSR's Serraglio.

The use of the General Mining Law of 1872 as a way to acquire cheap real estate has a long history. Nationwide, the instances of abuse add up to a considerable theft of public resources for private sources.

What's really upsetting to many critics of the law, however, is when someone claims the land, proves the existence of a deposit of valuable minerals, acquires the title from the government for a song, and then turns around and sells the land for a substantial profit to someone who plans to use it for purposes entirely unrelated to mining. Like development.

For example, about a decade ago, 60 acres were patented on BLM land outside of Phoenix, netting the government $170. The land now sports a golf course and Hilton resort named Point at Tapatio Cliffs. It's worth around $60 million.

FRANK McALLISTER LOOKS more like a TV evangelist than a big-time executive for a multinational mining company. His neatly barbered white hair is styled in what the Hair Club for Men catalog calls the Monte Carlo.

However, McAllister is ASARCO's executive vice-president for copper operations. He's also on the corporation's 11-member board of directors. With stock options added to his $700,000 annual salary, McAllister makes more than a million dollars a year. His work product is environmental havoc. (See "Bad Business,"page 17)

McAllister has one horse in his corral of stock answers, and he trots it out in response to nearly every question he's asked: Mining is good for Arizona.

But, finally, he admits that ASARCO may not actually mine at Rosemont Ranch.

"The decision to develop a mine on the property would be considered after the exchange is complete," he says.

The final decision will depend on many factors including world demand for copper, project capital cost, and cost of operation, he added.

This could prove problematic. ASARCO has said it would not develop the Rosemont property until its Mission Mine Complex near Green Valley is played out in 25 years. Additionally, from the perspective of mining, because of its low-grade ore, Rosemont has been a marginal mining area throughout its 400-year history. TW

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