Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry and Rosemont Copper are negotiating a possible deal that could preserve more than 7,600 acres of state trust land in the Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon watersheds southeast of Tucson.

If the deal goes through — it’s too early to tell if it will — it could make it easier for the Rosemont Mine to get a key federal permit allowing construction.

The negotiations have two county supervisors and the head of an anti-Rosemont group upset at Huckelberry, a longtime opponent of the proposed mine.

But making life easier for Rosemont isn’t his goal, Huckelberry said. He wants to make sure the county gets the best possible land saved to compensate for other lands the mine would destroy or damage, he said in an interview.

Mitigation — setting aside undeveloped land to compensate for damage done to the mine site and surrounding environs — has eluded Rosemont for years. The deal would also put the mine in line with the county’s land-saving guidelines that are typically applied to developers of environmentally sensitive open space.

In general, the land that would be saved lies along portions of Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon, which are two of Southern Arizona’s best-loved watersheds and are classified by the state as “outstanding waters.” Huckelberry says he wants to make sure that if the mine is built, mitigation will occur in the same area where many of the mine’s impacts will occur: the Cienega Basin, a major watershed connected to the Tucson area’s underground aquifer.

Foes oppose talks

Opponents of the mine say it’s not appropriate for Huckelberry to negotiate with Rosemont over mitigation for the federal permit, although it is OK for him to negotiate over meeting the county’s guidelines.

They say his actions could make possible a mine that would have many other damaging impacts besides those covered by the federal permit. That permit would be issued by the Army Corps of Engineers, and cover the mine’s federal Clean Water Act requirements. The U.S. Forest Service must also issue a separate approval for the mine.

County Supervisor Sharon Bronson said she’s “terribly disappointed” and “perplexed” by Huckelberry’s negotiations. Fellow Supervisor Richard Elias said he’s angry at what he called the administrator’s shenanigans.

Gayle Hartmann, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas’ president, said she doesn’t think it’s possible to adequately compensate for the mine’s impacts no matter where the mitigation occurs. While it’s better to have mitigation near the mine, she said she’s not sure how relevant that is because the mine will do so much permanent damage to air, water and wildlife habitat.

“We’re not at all clear what he thinks he is doing, or why he is doing it. It seems very counterproductive,” she said. “What none of that purchasing of property will resolve is that the mine will have disastrous consequences.”

Hartmann said Huckelberry would be better off letting the Corps and the EPA proceed with their negotiations with the mining company over the permit. In a sense, Huckelberry is negotiating or trying to negotiate on behalf of the Corps, Elias said.

“I don’t necessarily think he should be negotiating on behalf of others. He’s providing help for them (Rosemont) to get a permit that they haven’t gotten,” Elias said. “Chuck’s logic is that if the mine is approved, which is likely, then Pima County will be left out of the mitigation thing. I don’t think we should be negotiating with anyone until the final decision comes from the Forest Service.”

Huckelberry says he’s only considering a possible deal with Rosemont Copper to try to ensure that a final Corps permit has the best possible mitigation for its damage to streams and washes near the mine site in the Santa Rita Mountains.

“We would not stop opposing the mine — the first position is that we do not wish to have the mine, period. Our second position is if the mine is approved, the mitigation needs to be in the Cienega Basin,” he said.

Without this mitigation plan, the Corps could approve a much weaker one, protecting land outside the Cienega Basin, he said. Even if the Corps’ Arizona and regional offices didn’t approve such a plan, the national office could overrule them.

So Huckelberry asks and answers a rhetorical question: Is the county an enabler of Rosemont?

“The answer is no. We’re not the permitting agency. We don’t issue a single permit for Rosemont.”

Separate issues

At stake in the negotiations are separate issues. The first involves the county’s land conservation guidelines that are applied to most private developers of open land that biologists deem important habitat.

Depending on the quality of the land, a developer is supposed to — but typically is not required to — preserve 66 to 95 percent of the land in a project in return for being able to build there. Until now, Rosemont has not agreed to meet these guidelines.

Second is the Army Corps permit. It would be issued under Section 404 of the federal Clean Water Act, and cover dredging and filling of land in federally regulated washes. Last year, Rosemont offered to buy or otherwise preserve up to 4,500 acres of land and more than 1,700 acre-feet of water rights in Pima and Santa Cruz counties. The Corps, however, has repeatedly found this mitigation plan wanting, although it hasn’t denied the permit.

In early May, for instance, the Corps wrote Rosemont Copper CEO Rod Pace that it had determined the company’s land-saving and water rights purchase plans won’t fully compensate for “unavoidable adverse impacts” from the mine. One concern was that Rosemont proposed only “limited” efforts to restore land, which the Corps considers far more important than simply preserving land.

A few weeks later, on June 2, Huckelberry made his first detailed request to Rosemont Copper for specific mitigation lands. In his letter to Pace, however, he was mainly seeking to have the company set aside lands to meet the county’s guidelines for preserving open space in new developments.

He requested the company buy about 10,000 acres of state land, in two separate auctions of 5,000 acres each in four places:

  • Davidson Canyon, including important riparian areas and adjoining desert lands, considered biological core areas. These lands would maintain a wildlife corridor linking Davidson to the county’s Cienega Creek Natural Preserve.
  • Lower Cienega Creek, upstream and downstream of Interstate 10. These lands would connect the Cienega preserve to the federal Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, Huckelberry said.
  • Santa Ritas linkage areas, to ensure that enough open land exists to allow wildlife to go from Davidson Canyon to the northern end of the Santa Ritas.
  • Whetstone Mountain lands, to protect important riparian areas along Wakefield Canyon and maintain wildlife corridors between the Whetstones southeast of Tucson and areas northeast of them. Most of the land lies within designated jaguar critical habitat, and may contain suitable habitat for the endangered ocelot and the Western yellow-billed cuckoo.

On June 20, Rosemont’s Pace wrote Huckelberry back, offering to acquire 7,624 acres of state lands in the Cienega Basin. Pace offered to start work on acquiring 5,194 acres immediately and the remaining 2,430 acres within three years after the mine’s construction is finished.

Pace proposed to conserve these lands by recording conservation easements or other restrictions on them, by transferring the land to a conservation agency, or by other “appropriate methods.” He also offered to buy and dedicate for various conservation and restoration uses nearly 600 acre-feet of water rights, dating back to 1908.

The water would be used to enhance Cienega Creek in and around Pantano Dam in the Cienega Creek Preserve. Now, those water rights are used on a neighboring golf course that diverts water from the creek. Pace also promised to convey to the county 1,200 acre feet of rights to Central Arizona Project water, and provide money to build a pipeline to deliver a backup water supply when necessary.

In return, Pace said he wants the county Board of Supervisors to approve a complex arrangement known as an “In Lieu Fee” project involving Pantano Dam and Cienega Creek. The supervisors would have to approve it as members of the County Regional Flood Control District Board of Directors because the project would be managed by the flood control district.

Typically, an in-lieu program involves restoring, establishing, enhancing or preserving important aquatic resources or lands in which an applicant for a private permit pays a governmental or nongovernmental agency to run the program. It’s one form of mitigation commonly OK’d by the Corps in approving Clean Water Act permits.

A year ago, Rosemont Copper proposed to have Pima County and the Tucson Audubon Society manage an in-lieu program involving the water rights for Cienega Creek. Last December, however, Huckelberry abruptly pulled the plug on that program, telling the Army Corps that Cienega Creek doesn’t carry enough water most years to meet Rosemont’s restoration promises.

Pace’s offer of 1,200 acre feet of CAP water is beyond what Rosemont Copper was offering a year ago, potentially making this deal more attractive to Huckelberry.

Hudbay Minerals Inc., which this month took over Augusta Resource Corp., Rosemont Copper’s parent company, issued a statement Friday saying, “We are studying the impact of these communications and how to best craft final mitigation planning for the Rosemont project.” The statement came from Patrick Merrin, Hudbay’s vice president for business development and technical services.

Plan is an “Improvement”

Huckelberry said this mitigation plan is “a significant and substantial improvement” over earlier proposals.

He said he’s willing to consider an in-lieu fee program again, but it’s still not enough to mitigate for all real-world impacts of the mine. In part, that’s because many of the mine’s predicted environmental effects are based on computer model studies of which his staff has been critical.

“I want to see what the impacts are going to be in the real world once the mining occurs,” he said. “My concern continues to be, what happens if the predicted model impacts are understated? Who mitigates for that? How does that get mitigated?”

He added that he can’t say how long it will take to work out an acceptable package with Rosemont Copper.

Supervisor Bronson, however, said she’s concerned there’s no assurances today that the state land will be purchased. She also worries that the federal government won’t hold Rosemont’s feet to the fire to make sure the mitigations are performed properly and taxpayers aren’t held responsible if they don’t work.

“Why have the feds been so absent in pursuing these issues?” Bronson asked. “We need assurances that Rosemont will perform should this move forward. If they buy state land, how do we know they won’t sell it?

“Modeling for impacts in the past has always failed. They’re using outdated models. Even saying that modeling is a guess, which is what they have said, we don’t need guesses,” she said. “We need reimbursement for real damage for real occurrences.”

Bronson and Elias say it takes a long time to buy state land and it’s never certain that another buyer won’t outbid a party seeking to buy it for conservation. Supervisor Ally Miller, who supports the mine, would not comment on the negotiations. Supervisors Ramon Valadez and Ray Carroll, both opponents of the mine, couldn’t be reached.

State land purchases are uncertain, because the State Land Department must first agree that selling the lands is in the best interest of the schools and other parties for which it is held in trust. Then, it would conduct appraisals and put the lands up for public auction. The entire sale process takes 12 to 18 months.

Huckelberry said he would assume the mining company couldn’t get its Corps permit until the state land is sold — “I want the mitigation in hand before the mine is permitted.”

Contact Tony Davis at tdavis@tucson.com or 806-7746. Follow Davis on Twitter@tonydavis987