Center for Biological Diversity, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, Red Hill Landowners, Desert Watch, Sierra Club, Silverbell Mountain Alliance
Tuesday, January 22, 2002
Daniel R. Patterson, Desert Ecologist, Center for Biological Diversity
Conservation groups disappointed in breakdown of Ironwood National Monument trespass negotiations with mining giant ASARCO/Grupo Mexico.
TUCSON -- The fate of important bighorn sheep habitat and an illegal mining trespass in the Ironwood Forest National Monument remains undecided after months of negotiations among conservation groups and the ASARCO/Grupo Mexico mining company.
The Center for Biological Diversity, Coalition for Sonoran Desert Protection, Desert Watch, the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society, Silverbell Mountain Alliance, Red Hill Landowners, and the Sierra Club have been negotiating since June with ASARCO/Grupo Mexico, Arizona Dept. of Game and Fish and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) over the fate of 432 acres in Ironwood Forest National Monument. An Arizona Department of Game & Fish study of bighorn sheep habitat found these lands were some of the most important lambing grounds for the last viable desert bighorn sheep herd in the Tucson basin. ASARCO, a subsidiary of Grupo Mexico, publicly requested ownership of these monument lands last year. The lands contain close to five acres of ASARCO's mining-associated developments that are currently unpermitted and in illegal trespass within the national monument.
Conservation groups proposed a variety of different alternatives to resolve ASARCO's trespass while achieving a net benefit for the monument. ASARCO/Grupo Mexico refused all of these alternatives and countered with a proposal that they be given ownership of 100 acres within the monument, including their trespass sites, in exchange for giving up their unpatented mining claims on 332 acres of monument lands. It is currently impossible to determine whether these claims have any significant value. Unpatented claims cannot be mined within a monument unless they were explored prior to monument designation, and are deemed valid by BLM. Validity exams are very costly and take years to complete.
"Since last June, we've patiently advanced a flexible approach to resolving ASARCO's Monument trespass in a win-win fashion," said Daniel Patterson, Desert Ecologist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "But the company's plan would only hurt the Ironwood Monument by taking 100 acres of prime bighorn habitat, and giving only unpatented mining claims that would be difficult to mine." He adds, "Secretary Norton should not try to let ASARCO off the hook with a permit if she truly supports local control, because the locals are saying 'no' to ASARCO."
"After participating in this process in good faith for more than 4 months I am extremely disappointed that we appear to be so far off from a resolution that will provide any meaningful benefit to the native sheep population," added Brian Dolan of the Arizona Desert Bighorn Sheep Society.
Local landowners representatives were equally unsettled. Myra Smith, of the Red Hill Landowners group said, "It is very disappointing, after all these months of negotiations, that ASARCO did not respect the process enough to attempt a reasonable offer, providing a win/win solution for their company, the Monument, and the entire community."
"ASARCO'S proposal is unacceptable. I don't believe they have been negotiating in good faith." added Carl Davis, President of the Silverbell Mountain Alliance.
"The public lands affected by ASARCO's trespass are important not only as bighorn sheep habitat, and as part of Ironwood Forest National Monument, but also because they set a standard for how we protect our new monuments across the country," said Julie Sherman, Sierra Club Monument Organizer.
Sherman added, "We need to set a standard which is in the public's best interest, which helps protect these beautiful and vital public lands. ASARCO's trespass must be offset with increased protection of the wildlife, desert habitat, cultural resources, and other scientific values for which the monument was designated. We would welcome a new proposal from ASARCO which meets this requirement."
The conservation groups' proposal presented nine options ASARCO/Grupo Mexico could take to improve habitat quality and quantity within the monument, in exchange for ownership of the acreage containing their trespasses. Their focus is protection of key wildlife habitat and travel corridors, including bighorn sheep lambing grounds and pygmy-owl habitat. Several suggested actions were low cost or cost free for ASARCO, for example, signing on to Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan or turning ASARCO-owned lands over to the monument.
It is unlikely BLM could legally accept ASARCO/Grupo Mexico's proposed exchange. The monument proclamation prohibits new claims or rights of way beyond valid existing rights, "other than by exchange that furthers the protective purposes of the monument." The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 43, Volume 2, further requires that Federal land exchanges must be in the public interest, and that the, "lands or interests in lands...involved in an exchange have readily apparent and substantially similar elements of value, such as location, size, use, physical characteristics, and other amenities."
"We have no assurance these conditions are being met by ASARCO's proposed exchange," said Carolyn Campbell, Director of the Coalition for Sonorant Desert Protection. "They may not even be giving up any valid existing claim rights, as those rights would need to be proven to have been valid prior to the monument declaration."
Campbell added, "We feel ASARCO is missing an opportunity to craft a creative solution with broad-based community support. We must continue working to find solutions to protect the critical biological and cultural values within the monument; we hope ASARCO will consider revising their proposal and working with us towards this goal."
For more information from the natural resource agencies, contact Tony Herrell, BLM 520.258.7203 or Sherry Ruther, AGFD 520.628.5376 x 137.
For a copy of the Ironwood conservation proposal, contact Martin Taylor at 520.623.5252 x 307 or Carolyn Campbell at 520.388.9925.