By Sean J. Miller - 05/11/10 10:00 AM EDT
SUPERIOR, Ariz. — A local dispute in this old mining town has sparked a legislative battle on Capitol Hill, and the outcome could affect the reelection races of two incumbents in Congress.
A proposed land exchange between the federal government and an international mining conglomerate would carve thousands of acres out of the surrounding national forest — land the Apache Indians consider sacred. Over the last several years, the effort to open a protected area to mining for the first time has become embroiled in an ethics controversy and sparked an environment-versus-jobs debate.
The chairman of the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe, the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona, former miners and environmentalists vehemently oppose the land exchange. They’re up against Resolution Copper Co., its congressional allies and a town hungry for the jobs the mine would bring.
The state’s economy is in the doldrums, and the Copper Triangle region in the heart of Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick’s (D-Ariz.) district is no exception.
Her reelection prospects, and to some extent those of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has pushed the land swap bill in the Senate, may hinge on getting the legislation passed.
McCain is in a challenging primary race and Kirkpatrick represents a district he carried by 10 percentage points in the 2008 presidential election.
Kirkpatrick and McCain aren’t the first to champion the land exchange.
Former Rep. Rick Renzi (R-Ariz.), Kirkpatrick’s predecessor in the House, wanted land owned by one of his supporters included in the exchange. Resolution Copper balked, and the congressman was subsequently indicted, which ended his political career. The legislation, tainted by association, died.
The bill found new life after it was re-branded by McCain and Kirkpatrick as a no-cost stimulus for Arizona. “Because it’s a jobs bill, it’s a top priority,” Kirkpatrick said recently.
The measure would see the federal government give Resolution Copper 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in exchange for 5,500 acres of ecologically valuable property across Arizona. Usually, land exchange bills move through Congress swiftly and without much fanfare. But the Copper Basin Jobs Act has been an exception.
The legislation is being held up by environmental concerns and the inclusion in the exchange of the Oak Flats Campground northeast of Superior, which was protected from development by President Dwight Eisenhower in 1955.
It’s where the Apache harvest acorns and pray, and despite assurances from Kirkpatrick about environmental protections to safeguard the area, the tribe is concerned the mine will destroy one of its most sacred sites.
Apache skepticism of government promises is captured in the legend of a cliff that divides Oak Flats from Superior. An Apache band, the story goes, refusing to surrender its land and move to the reservations, leapt to its death here when surrounded by federal soldiers. The area, known today as Apache Leap, is considered a burial ground by the tribe.
When Kirkpatrick ran for Congress in 2008, she came to the San Carlos Reservation for a fundraiser organized by Wendsler Nosie Sr., the Apache tribe’s chairman.
“The tribe fully supported her,” said Nosie.
Backing from the tribes is significant in Arizona’s 1st House district; Native Americans make up roughly 20 percent of the population, one of the highest concentrations in the country.
A falling-out. Two years after the San Carlos fundraiser, Nosie is no longer on speaking terms with Kirkpatrick. The rift between the freshman lawmaker and many in Eastern Arizona’s Indian Country started several months after she won election to the House. That’s when she first staked out a firm position on the mining project.
While in Washington for the passage of a resolution honoring the legendary Apache leader, Geronimo, last February, Nosie went to Kirkpatrick’s office for a meeting. He had heard rumors that she was planning to support the exchange and wanted to remind her of the tribe’s view.
That day Nosie and Martha Interpreter-Baylish, a member of the San Carlos tribal council, sat down with Kirkpatrick and her chief of staff, Michael Frias, around a coffee table in her office.
“Back in Arizona I’m hearing you’re supporting Resolution Copper,” Nosie recalled saying.
He asked her directly whether she supported the bill. Kirkpatrick responded that she did. They talked about the tribe’s environmental concerns, and the conversation quickly became tense, according to several accounts.
“Ann, the reason why I’m here is because you had told me that you would definitely hear both sides of the story,” Nosie said.
Kirkpatrick leaned forward in her chair.
“Chairman, tell me, how is your religion going to put food on the table?” she said. “Tell me how your religion is going to help the children getting abused by their parents. How is your religion going to turn the bed sheets of your elders?”
The chairman stopped her. “Ann, don’t even go there,” he said.
The meeting broke up minutes later. The chairman and Kirkpatrick haven’t spoken directly since.
“I certainly appreciate the importance of sacred sites,” said Kirkpatrick, who grew up on an Apache reservation, where her father ran a general store. “But I will tell you that I’ve also visited with other members of the tribe who say, ‘Look, we need these jobs.’ My take on it is that most people in that region, including many of the tribal members, really want the economic development that’s going to come with this project.”
Kirkpatrick’s bill has been assigned to the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, which is chaired by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). He has long opposed the legislative effort, but is preparing to present his fellow Democrat with an alternative piece of legislation.
“I think we’re selling ourselves short. This company, I don’t trust them,” Grijalva said recently, noting he felt there weren’t strict enough environmental protections in Kirkpatrick’s bill.
“We’re willing to sit and talk about an alternative legislative solution,” he said.
Kirkpatrick’s version includes a stipulation that a full environmental study be conducted and the results approved by the secretary of Agriculture before the land is conveyed to the company. A previous version stipulated only a truncated study and mandatory conveyance regardless of the results.
Grijalva plans to present Kirkpatrick with his own version of the bill soon.
Kirkpatrick said she’s cautiously optimistic. “I’m definitely going to push this legislation ahead,” she said, although she’s aware the chairman’s discretion will dictate when her bill is brought before his panel.
Kirkpatrick is aware that while she waits for Grijalva, McCain is working to put the exchange into an omnibus lands bill that could be approved in this Congress.
The pressure is building, meanwhile, on Kirkpatrick. Resolution Copper ran a series of ads in local newspapers telling Kirkpatrick, “We’re counting on you to help pass this bill now.”
The company has spent more than $1.2 million on federal lobbyists since 2003, public records show.
A town in need of jobs. Kirkpatrick does not directly answer a question on whether she’s made the calculation that jobs are more important than the religious practices of the Apache. She talks about finding a balance between the two, but also points to the traditions of Superior and the surrounding mining towns.
“This region has been a mining region for a hundred years. I talk with miners who are third-, fourth-generation miners in this area. It’s not only their livelihood, it’s also their life,” she said.
Most residents of Superior are impatient for the exchange to go ahead. “This is a no-brainer. This doesn’t cost the federal government anything. We’re not asking them for a bailout. Let it move ahead,” said Michael Hing, the mayor of Superior.
The area was first settled at the end of the 19th century by prospectors and immigrant laborers who came to work in the surrounding small-scale mines. The mayor himself comes from a long line of miners. “I’m 100 percent Chinese,” he said during a drive around Superior, noting that his grandfather came over from China to work in the mines.
The center of town is now mostly a collection of boarded-up storefronts and adjacent streets lined with rundown bungalows. The town’s population has dropped from some 7,000 at the height of its mining heyday to about 3,200 today. Hing and other supporters view the project as a way to make their town flourish again. “We had shoe stores, barbershops, we had a full-time doctor here, a working movie theater — all those amenities that make a good little town,” he said.
Cabinet secretaries visit the area. On a recent afternoon a homemade sign on a building on Main Street read, “Thank you, Secretary Vilsack.” It was left over from his visit, at Kirkpatrick’s invitation, six weeks prior. Last August, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar made a similar visit at McCain’s behest. Several weeks before the trip, McCain lifted his holds on two Interior Department nominees — holds he had placed in order to get the administration’s support for the lands exchange.
“The thing about Sen. McCain and Congresswoman Kirkpatrick working hard is getting the bureaucrats to come out here and take a look at this whole project,” said Hing. “You can talk about it and talk about it, but unless you walk on it and go through the town and see what we’re facing, you don’t really get the whole gist of it.”
The objections of environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition are unfounded, Hing says.
“Give me a break. We made our lives here,” he said. “I’m an environmentalist because I’m raising my four kids here. I’m very concerned about the water, the air, the land quality.”
Resolution Copper is already making preparations to mine underneath the Oak Flats Campground, expanding its existing shafts for the day it’ll be able to start harvesting the ore that lies about 7,000 feet below the surface.
In the meantime, the company is spending $50 million to reclaim the old Magma Mine site, which extends from north of downtown Superior over Apache Leap. “Doing the reclamation was a way for us to demonstrate to the community that we would take care of the environment,” said David Salisbury, Resolution Copper’s chief executive.
The Magma Mine was operational for close to a century. The old smokestack from the smelter is visible from almost anywhere in town. Before it closed in the 1990s, the miners clipped the top of what was later determined to be a mountain-sized copper ore body, though at the time they couldn’t reach it.
The international mining giant Rio Tinto got wind of the find and bought the mine. It then partnered with BHP-Billiton to set up a subsidiary, which became known as Resolution Copper.
“We will mine out of this mine in the first year more than they took out of [the old one] in its nearly a century of life,” Salisbury said outside one of the old mine’s refurbished buildings. “That’s the difference in the scale of the mine.”
Kirkpatrick’s office estimates the project will create close to 2,000 jobs. But critics say it’ll be years before the first paychecks are cut, because the mine is almost a decade away from becoming fully operational.
Labor dispute complicates passage. Environmental concerns aren’t the only thing holding up the bill. Rio Tinto is engaged in a nasty labor dispute at one of its California mines, where it has locked out some 600 workers for months.
A staffer in Kirkpatrick’s office said the company must work to resolve that situation amicably before the bill can move forward. “We can’t create 2,000 jobs in Arizona at the expense of 600 in California,” the Kirkpatrick aide said.
Despite the hurdles, Kirkpatrick believes the legislation will pass.
“I’m optimistic that we can find common ground and balance and move this project ahead,” she said.
Nosie said the tribe will keep working with Kirkpatrick on other issues, but he won’t support her reelection.
“She gave Indian Country a great hope,” the chairman said on a recent Sunday morning at the Oak Flats Campground. “And now that’s wiped clean.” He paused. “Another politician. Another politician that played us good.”