Inside Outside Southwest Magazine

Adventure Guides Ben Greene and Dana John Wentzel

Shadow Cat Adventures was featured in Inside Outside Southwest Magazine.

It’s Mine! No, It’s Mine!
Recreation fights mining for a heavenly paradise
By Colleen Miniuk-Sperry

Standing nervously on the edge of a 60-foot cliff above the fourth of five pools found in Devil’s Canyon, my toes curl in my shoes and my fingers tightly clench the rope. Outfitted in my harness and helmet, it’s not the rappel I’m scared of. An abyss of murky green water resembling pea soup awaits at the end of my rappel, and I’m deathly afraid of being in water where I can’t see my feet.

A deep breath provides enough confidence to start the plunge. After all, I have already swum cautiously through three of the “Five Pools” in Devil’s Canyon without being tragically eaten alive by the monster who subsists on human flesh lurking below the water. Exhaling, I lean back to begin the exhilarating descent, trying to focus on letting the rope glide through my hand and enjoying the spectacular view of deciduous trees intermingling with rugged volcanic spires around me.

As my toes touch the bowl of water, I quickly unhook my harness from the rope and thoughtlessly fall into the water. Fear never felt so good.

Swimming across the bowl on my back, avoiding the thought of the monster nipping at my feet, I watch my 58-year-old mother rappel the first rappel of her life, effortlessly whizzing down the line. Evident by the smile-inducing “yaaahooooooo!” she yells during her descent of the cliff, clearly fear is not in her blood.

As if we were lazily splashing around in a resort hotel pool, my mother and I exchange congratulatory words. Though it may be called Devil’s Canyon, my mother and I decide this is a heavenly paradise. As we pull ourselves over the lip of the bowl wall, our guides, Dana John Wentzel and Ben Greene of Shadow Cat Adventures, reveal that we are not the only ones who have developed a love-at-first-sight affinity for this canyon.

Beyond the Five Pools in Lower Devil’s Canyon alluring experienced hikers and canyoneers, Upper Devil’s Canyon attracts novice and world-class climbers alike to areas called the “Pancake House,” “Devil’s Den,” and “The Beach.” Wildlife enthusiasts are wild about Devil’s Canyon since it serves as one of the richest and most diverse riparian areas left in a state where water is rarer than a three-legged crow. In addition, the nearby San Carlos Apache Tribe, which call this canyon “Gaan Canyon” instead of the more foreboding but commonly used name, visit this and the surrounding Oak Flat area annually for ceremonial and acorn harvesting purposes.

Even President Dwight Eisenhower knew how special this area was. In 1955, he signed Public Land Order 1229 to protect the Oak Flat area from future development forever. He obviously knew of this land’s recreational and environmental value. But did he know at the time that lying 7,000 feet below was possibly the largest ore body of copper ever to be found in North America?

The Resolution Copper Mine sure does, and as such, they have developed their own special affinity for this land. A joint venture between two of the world’s most prolific mining companies, the London-based Rio Tinto Group and the Australian-based Broken Hill Properties, the Resolution Copper Mine aims to re-establish the historical Magma Copper Mine northeast of Superior. In order to get to the ore body, though, they need access to approximately 2,400 additional acres of land neighboring the current mine property. They need the Oak Flat.

Congress is currently considering bill “Senate Bill 409: Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2009,” which would allow Resolution Copper Mine to acquire the necessary Oak Flat land in a complex land exchange. What happened to the 1955 presidential order preventing development in this area forever? Congress can overturn a presidential order, and that’s exactly what’s about to happen if Resolution Copper Mine gets its way.

The potential, eye-opening benefits of mining this land have caught the government’s attention. The economic impact is estimated to be more than $46 billion over the mine’s 60-plus year expected lifespan. Federal, state, county, and local tax revenue could generate in excess of $10 billion. Critical jobs would be created in a struggling and desperate economy.

Money and jobs or recreation? And so the-pursuit-of-happiness debate begins.

Though Oak Flat is threatened by the land exchange, Devil’s Canyon is not despite the upper portion residing within the boundaries of unpatented mining claims dating from as far back as 1917. The lower portion sits protected by Arizona state trust land.

However, due to its immediate proximity to the Oak Flat area and the block caving-style mining approach proposed by Resolution Copper Mine, outdoor enthusiasts are concerned access to Devil’s Canyon will disappear if the land exchange materializes. The Queen Creek Coalition, led by Erik Filsinger, is negotiating directly with the Resolution Copper Mine officials to ensure access to Devil’s Canyon, as well as the surrounding area, is preserved should the Resolution Copper Mine be granted permission to mine underneath the Oak Flat area.

Filsinger points out, “there’s a boom-and-bust cycle to mining. What if we make this a sustainable economy through establishing a premier recreation area?” He continues, “Under the current president [David Salisbury], Resolution Copper Mine has made a sincere effort to work with us.”

Beyond access issues, there is concern among not just the outdoor community but also conservationists that the Resolution Copper Mine activities will de-water then destroy the delicate and exceptional riparian habitat found within Devil’s Canyon. Matt Nelson of the Rincon Group of the Sierra Club says, “Every riparian area is like an artery. Once you sever it, it’s gone forever.”

That said, no one is sure of the possible environmental impacts right now. Starting in 1969, proposed mines have been subjected to the analysis set forth in the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA. Conducting a NEPA analysis not only determines the severity of the environmental impacts expected from the proposed mining activities, but it also allows for public comment during the process.

According to the current legislation, the Resolution Copper Mine will be required to complete the NEPA analysis after bill S.409 passes in Congress, not before. Though the land swap would not be technically finalized until the NEPA results have been reviewed and signed off by the Secretary of Agriculture, people like Don Steuter of the Palo Verde Group of the Sierra Club believe passing S.409 prior to having the NEPA analysis completed is equivalent to approving the land swap and subsequent mining efforts. Steuter remarks, “How will anyone be able to say ?this is a bad idea’ after the NEPA analysis is done if the bill has already passed?”

Finally, there are concerns with what will happen to the area when the mine closes. Steuter believes the burden will fall on the taxpayers “to take care of the perpetual clean-up process” resulting from mounds of tailing piles and water contamination. On paper, the benefits of mining are promising, but Steuter poses, “Do we really gain anything in the long run considering the clean-up costs?”

So what can we do? Well, we can’t just “give up” copper to stop the mining. Copper is in so much of what we consume from computers to coins, from refrigerators to alternative fuel vehicles. Preliminary estimates show the Resolution Copper Mine providing up to 20 percent of the expected future copper demand in the United States over the next 50 years, according to the Resolution Copper Mine’s project summary. Nelson says, “It breaks my heart to sacrifice the Devil’s Canyon riparian area just so I can drive my electric car.”

Calling for a boycott on copper is not going to stop production here. Instead, Steuter recommends getting involved with local organizations like the Queen Creek Coalition, the Sierra Club, and Audubon Arizona. Of course, sharing your opinion with your legislators wouldn’t hurt either.

In addition to those efforts, Nelson suggests simply getting to know Devil’s Canyon first hand by going on a hike, climbing one of the routes, or canyoneering through the Five Pools. Nelson concludes, “People will only protect what they love, and they will only love what they know.”

But once you fall in love with Devil’s Canyon, do you tell everyone you know to encourage them to visit too or do you keep it to yourself to protect it from overuse? This is a catch-22 for many outdoor enthusiasts concerned with loving places like Devil’s Canyon to death. Wentzel says, “As a canyoneer, we try to keep canyons secret so people will not go through them and unnecessarily bolt them or groups of partiers will go through and trash them, but if getting the word out about this place saves it from being destroyed by mining, then that is a risk I’m willing to take.”

I, too, am willing to take that chance, trusting my fellow outdoor enthusiasts will responsibly get to know Devil’s Canyon. Then decide for yourself, is Devil’s Canyon yours or is it a mine’s?

Collen Miniuk-Sperry writes and photographs from Chandler, Ariz.


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