Patagonia has one bar, one coffee shop, one gas station.
And customers at nearly all of them are divided between those in favor of a new mining project in this tiny southeastern-Arizona town and those against it.
Roughly half of Patagonia’s 900 residents support Arizona Mining Inc., a Canadian company that recently bought land near town for exploratory drilling. The rest oppose the mining company, seeking to preserve the region's unique rare wildlife and steer the economy away from mineral extraction and toward environmental restoration.
Arizona Mining Inc. has vowed to create an estimated 500 jobs through a mine it plans to have up and running in 2020. In July, the company predicted the mine will extract 10,000 tons of minerals per day and could be viable for eight years.
OLD MINING TOWN
Abandoned mines speckle the mountains around Patagonia, which is 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border and an hour’s drive from Tucson. Mining surged here after the United States acquired present-day Southern Arizona from Mexico in 1853. Silver, lead, copper and gold lured newcomers, despite the threat of Apache raids.
Mining thrived here until after the end of World War II, when demand for metals fell and the ore bodies dried up. The railroad shut down, and by the 1960's mining had nearly disappeared. Today, Santa Cruz County has no active mines and there has been no significant mining in the region for decades.
After the miners left, artists and hippies moved in. Property was cheap and the mountains provided an abundance of artistic inspiration.
“They really changed the flavor of the town to more of an artsy-type community,” said Gooch Goodwin, a Patagonia native who comes from a long-time ranching family and remembers newcomers infusing the town with fresh energy.
Some old-timers bristled to see their town’s culture shift from blue-collar to bohemian. Charlie Montoy, owner of the Politically Incorrect Gas Station ("PIGS"), describes newcomers as “cultural thieves."
"They come here from their big cities and like the small-knit community,” Montoy said. “But all of the sudden they want to change the community. They’re bringing in their city ways.”
A new industry — tourism — sustains Patagonia’s economy. The Patagonia Mountains are part of Arizona’s “Sky Islands,” lush mountain forests jutting out of flat desert lowlands.
The area is an international destination for birdwatching and is home to threatened species like the yellow-billed cuckoo and Mexican spotted owl. The only known jaguar left in the United States, fondly called “El Jefe” (“The Boss”) by locals, roams the mountains here. Ocelots have been spotted. The monsoon fills creeks and soaks into aquifers that supply the town’s wells with drinking water.
In the winter months, retirees from colder climates come for the mild weather. Hunters, eco-tourists and backpackers pass through and spend money at the Patagonia RV Park, at local art galleries and on coffee or lunch at Gathering Grounds, the town’s unofficial social hub.
Despite business gains from tourism, some residents fret about the town’s future. Patagonia is in eastern Santa Cruz County, one of the poorest in Arizona. In January, 9.5 percent of the county’s workforce was unemployed — nearly double Arizona’s statewide unemployment rate. Fresh produce accounts for 22 percent of the county’s jobs, most of which are related to the Port of Nogales, where produce flows from Mexico for distribution in the U.S. Government jobs — with the Forest Service, Border Patrol or other agencies — make up another 19 percent.
Brent Bowden, a Patagonia native and owner of an excavation company in town, worries that the poor economy pushes young people toward drug and people smuggling. “I just want to see the local area come back to life,” Bowden said. To those like him, a new mining project is a chance for Patagonia to renew the industry that put it on the map.
“With the economy, it’s been very hard,” said Michelle Spurr, who works at a restaurant in town. Spurr’s fiancé was unemployed and struggling to find work before he was hired by a drilling contractor working for Arizona Mining Inc. The couple has three children in school and hopes to finally have money for a wedding. “I try to have the most unbiased position on the drilling,” Spurr said — taking a position on mining might be bad for business at the restaurant. But the new income, she said, has been a blessing for her family.
Goodwin, who spent years working as a fire lookout for the Forest Service, opposes the drilling. He said he doesn’t fault anyone who works with the mining company. But he doubts Arizona Mining Inc. will make good on its promise to create long-term, sustainable jobs.
He and his colleagues at the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, a group that opposes mining near the town and aims to protect wildlife, say the time for extractive industries is long past and investment in restoration and sustainability is the only way forward.
“If we recycled what we had, we wouldn’t have to dig anything more out of the ground,” said Cliff Hirsch, the group’s director. He thinks Arizona Mining Inc. will make money from investors in the short term, but he doubts it will lead to more minerals coming out of the ground over the long term.
To emphasize the need for sustainability, Goodwin points to dozens of abandoned mines in the Patagonia Mountains that are environmental and health hazards. One — the Lead Queen, just outside of town — flooded after a major storm in 2014. Dark orange water with high iron levels poured out of the shaft and into a nearby creek. Leaky mines, Goodwin said, are a constant threat to the aquifer that supplies the town’s drinking water.
Arizona Mining Inc.’s supporters say government regulations on water quality and the onerous permitting process proposed mines must undertake will prevent any of the water contamination and long-term environmental damage that worry opponents of the project.
A FAILED OPEN PIT PROJECT
Despite its name, Arizona Mining Inc. is based in Vancouver, Canada, and is publicly traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. As a junior mining company, it only performs exploratory operations and has never operated a mine or sold minerals. Junior mining companies typically rely on investors to bankroll exploration. If the junior company discovers a viable mineral deposit, it usually sells its findings to a larger mining company to develop.
For now, Arizona Mining Inc. says it has no plans to sell and will try to develop a mine itself. The company first acquired property in the Patagonia Mountains in 2006 as Arizona Minerals Inc. That year it changed its name to Wildcat Silver Corp. and began developing plans for an open pit silver mine, called the Hermosa Central project, about six miles south of Patagonia.
In 2011, the Forest Service granted Wildcat Silver approval to expand the Hermosa Central project to public land. It’s common for private companies to drill on public land, but federal law requires that mining companies apply for permits and pass environmental studies. The company operated over 100 exploratory drill holes connected to the project and, in 2011, it appointed Nogales Vice Mayor Greg Lucero a vice president of the company.
Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, the group that opposes drilling in the area, worked with other environmental groups to file a lawsuit opposing the pit. It claimed the company did not go through necessary environmental assessments. The Forest Service revoked approval of the project the following year.
In 2015, the company cancelled the environmental assessment for the project and changed its name to Arizona Mining Inc.
Lucero said the company has no intention of developing an open pit mine and will instead use an underground system to access minerals.
NEW DRILLING PROGRAM
The controversy in Patagonia today is an extension of an ongoing fight between the company and environmental groups.
In January 2016, Arizona Mining Inc. acquired 300 acres of private property adjacent to the Hermosa Central project and started a new exploratory drilling program, announcing it had hit major silver and zinc deposits. By fall, it had 14 drill rigs operating on the property.
The new drilling, called the Taylor project, is specifically for an underground mine, which would pose fewer environmental concerns. “An open pit requires stripping significantly more surface material to access the ore body,” Lucero said. The Taylor project’s ore is deep underground, so he said the less-disruptive underground approach made sense.
But opponents don’t want to see any mining — open pit or underground. Both can contaminate the water supply and damage habitats of threatened species, they say.
Arizona Mining Inc. projected in April that the new deposit will produce over 60 million tons of ore. That would make the mine the 11th largest zinc producer globally.
Abandoned mines worked by the property’s previous owners leaked contaminated water, so Arizona Mining Inc. agreed to develop a water treatment system for the new site. Lucero said the company has submitted plans to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality for review. The company says it has taken steps to stop the abandoned mines from leaking. But critics contend it has been too secretive about its plans to avoid water contamination.
Conflict over the project intensified last summer, when the company again attempted to expand to public land. In September 2016, Arizona Mining Inc. submitted a proposal to the Forest Service, which included plans for eight drill holes in the Coronado National Forest, close to the company’s private land. The drilling was to happen 24 hours a day for five months.
Private citizens can do little to stop a company from drilling on its own land, but public land is different. A company must go through an environmental review process with the Forest Service that includes a public comment period. “That’s where we jump in,” said Wendy Russell, coordinator of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance. The group hosted workshops for locals about how to write effective public comments.
Of the 82 public comments submitted, 64 asked the Forest Service to do a more rigorous environmental assessment or flat-out opposed the project. Of the 18 supportive comments, more than half were from people employed by Arizona Mining Inc.’s contractors.
For Hirsch, among others, the battle was personal. He purchased his house in 2006, just before the company started exploring the Patagonia Mountains. His house sits on a ridge deep in the mountains, about 10 miles from town and 1 mile from Arizona Mining Inc.’s property. Because drilling goes on around the clock, Hirsch said he can hear the drone of the drills and see bright lights surrounding the drill pads at all hours. Before the drilling, the sky was inky black at night and the loudest noise was the wind. He said he never would have bought his home had he known exploratory drilling would take off. “I was aware I was moving to a mining area, but the general feeling at that time was that everything was played out,” said Hirsch.
Yet other Patagonians support the drilling, hopeful that Arizona Mining Inc. will give the town the financial boost it desperately needs. “This whole town is going to go belly-up if this mine doesn’t come in here,” said Montoy, the gas station owner.
“The mining will help bring families here,” said Stephanie Padilla, a waitress at the Home Plate restaurant whose family has lived in town for generations. Her son attended Patagonia’s school until there were no longer enough students to make a baseball team. He hopes to get a baseball scholarship to college, so Padilla now drives him to Nogales for high school so he can play. She said she hopes the drilling will create permanent jobs and help enrollment at the schools.
She also has seen the benefit of the drilling project at work. Home Plate started opening earlier to serve drillers before their early-morning shifts. “I make 30 extra dollars by 8:30 in the morning now,” Padilla said. The hot summer is normally the slow season in Patagonia, but last summer Padilla said the drillers helped keep tourism steady.
In November 2016, Arizona Mining Inc. cancelled its proposal to drill on public land, ending the Forest Service review process. Company vice president Lucero said the decision was to avoid the cumbersome permitting process and instead contain drilling to the company’s private land.
The conflict, however, is far from over. Hirsch suspects the company will eventually sell its land and walk away, leaving an environmental mess for locals to clean up.
Opponents of the project would rather see Patagonia find cleaner ways to create jobs.
Borderlands Restoration, which protects biodiversity in the Sky Islands, works to restore waterways, repopulate native plants and protect “wildlife corridors,” swaths of land that connect the Sky Island mountain ranges and create safe passage for migrating wildlife. Borderlands aims to create jobs by contracting with government agencies for environmental cleanup projects, selling plants from its nurseries and developing fee-based education programs.
The group takes no formal position on mining, but its programs focus on environmental restoration, which has fundamental conflicts with mining’s extraction-based economy. The roads needed for mining, for example, can create erosion and destroy native wildlife.
Borderlands has 20 employees, plus a half-dozen attached to its nonprofit Borderlands Habitat Network. “Sometimes it’s hard to fill jobs because there aren’t that many young people,” said Francesca Claverie, who moved to Patagonia in 2013 for a job with Borderlands. She noted that young people tend to gravitate toward jobs with the mining company for its 60-hour work week.
In February, Arizona Mining Inc. reduced its drill rigs from 14 to 9 and began wrapping up its exploratory processes. In April, the company released a preliminary economic report detailing plans to have an operational mine on its private land by 2020. Lucero said the company will employ 500 people between the mine itself and the water treatment facility.
Patagonians are still debating whether it will get the proper permits to do that. Michael Stabile, a town council member who opposes the project, thinks the company will run out of money before it can open a mine.
Bowden’s excavation company has a long-term contract with Arizona Mining Inc. to provide logistical support, like building roads to the drill rigs and transporting water. His business is deeply invested in the drilling project and he is confident the company will open a successful mine.
“We’re now starting to funnel all of our cards into this one basket,” said Bowden, who has 32 employees working on the drilling project. “It’s great. It’s an opportunity to work on a world-class project 15 minutes from where I choose to live.”