Patagonia Could Become A Mining Town Again

By Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, December 19, 2014 - 7:05am
Updated: Tuesday, February 3, 2015 - 2:38pm
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Stina Sieg/KJZZ
The desert that surrounds Patagonia may soon be home to an open-pit silver mine. Large mines left the area more than 50 years ago. Now, some residents are fighting their return.

Across Arizona, some small towns founded on mining have been reborn as quirky, artsy tourist destinations. Think Bisbee or Tombstone or Jerome. But in one remote spot, that switch may not be permanent. In the Southern Arizona town of Patagonia, residents are divided over whether it should become a mining community once more.

The few blocks that make up its downtown can be a little sleepy, including its only gas station. But it’s still a hub in this town of less than a thousand people, the kind of place where you don’t just fill up, but sit around and shoot the breeze. A popular topic? Patagonia’s future, especially for its young people.

Forty-year resident Lee Gordon, resting in one of the station’s plastic chairs, puts it this way:

“If the mines were here, they could work for the mines and stay here, raise their families here,” he said. “But they’re going to go where the jobs are and I don’t blame them.”

Large-scale mining operations helped build this town, then died out decades ago. Now a Canadian company called Wildcat Silver is exploring whether to develop an open-pit silver mine six miles outside of town. Gordon, who actually does some part-time work for Wildcat, is all for it, but knows some people here don’t feel the same. He pointed to a Subaru leaving the station.

“She’s driving a hippie wagon that’s loaded with copper and silver and anything that’s mined out of the ground,” he said, a Wildcat hat on his head. “But that’s fine, because that’s hers. But nobody else, no.”

Station owner Charlie Montoy has a name for some of these newbies: “culture thieves.”

“They come down here from the city or wherever they come from, and they come down to this little town, and they like it the way it is,” he said. “But after a while, what they do, they bring in their big-city ideas.”

Big-city ideas like mining is bad for Patagonia. That’s what Wendy Russell and her fiancé Gooch Goodwin believe whole-heartedly. They took me up nearby Red Mountain to show why. As we bounced along a rocky, perilous road, we get glimpses of the proposed mining site.

“Mining is dirty and thirsty, period,” Russell said.

That’s why she and others began the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance. It recently released a study saying the project could consume hundreds of millions of gallons of water annually, much more than entire town of Patagonia. It also says the site could leak acid and metals, among other concerns. Wildcat disputes this. And it did not respond for comment.

We stopped at a vista point, and Goodwin looked at the desert below. With a touch of nostalgia, he talked about living on this mountain as a fire lookout for several seasons.

After the sun went down, “Maybe one ranch would have lights on for part of the night, but it would be entirely black,” he said. “And to be able to see a major mine site like that, which I’ve been around lots of big mine sites. And see something like that, I mean, that’s criminal.”

But legal, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Heidi Schewel is with the Coronado National Forest, where the possible mine would be located.

Her agency’s job is here to make sure laws are followed and then help the project to move forward by following our process,” she said. “That’s what we are mandated to do.”

Schewel said she works hard to be open about that process. By law, individuals and companies can prospect on public land. It’s a right they’ve had since 1872.

So, if you live near public land, especially if it has been mined before, “There may be folks in the future, near future or off in the distant future, they may want to develop those mineral resources,” Schewel said. “That’s the reality of what this is, and if they’re on National Forest Service lands, again we have a process that guides us to support those operations.”  

She thinks mining may be picking up Southern Arizona. She knows of several proposals in the Coronado National Forest alone. Meanwhile, a final decision on the Wildcat project could be years away.

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