Manny Rangel, a captain in the Phoenix Fire Department, has been climbing and developing routes in the area around the Oak Flat Campground, about 50 miles east of Phoenix, Arizona, since the climbing-rich resource was first discovered by climbers in the 1970s. It's since become a proving ground for some of the best American climbers. Rangel clearly recalls the 1996 Phoenix Bouldering Championship, held at Oak Flat, which at the time was one of the world’s largest outdoor rock climbing competitions. During the event, a California kid who looked more like a surfer than a climber stepped up and slayed the more than 500 other entrants.
“There was this overhanging finger crack that definitely shut me down,” Rangel said. “Even some of our area’s strongest climbers couldn’t get. And then this kid just walks right up to it, doesn’t even breathe hard and he hikes it. Our jaws just dropped collectively.” That kid was Chris Sharma. He was only 14 then, and took home the championship, a feat that represents his explosion onto the climbing scene.
Now, Oak Flat, which boasts about 500 sport climbs and more than 2,000 bouldering problems as well as a slew of traditional routes, is facing an existential threat.
In December of 2014, Arizona’s Congressional Delegation, spearheaded by Senator John McCain, inserted a rider into the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual must-past piece of legislation that funds the Department of Defense. The resolution handed over the title to 2,400 acres of land encompassing Oak Flat to a copper mining interest called Resolution Copper Mining, owned by British and Australian mining multinational corporation Rio Tinto. The mining company needed an Act of Congress to acquire the land because President Dwight Eisenhower's administration withdrew the Oak Flat Campground and surrounding area from mining considerations via Public Land Order 1229 in 1955.
Rio Tinto’s proposal includes plans to dig more than a mile beneath the earth to extract the precious metal. The process would cause the ground surface to sink into a large pit resembling a meteor crater about one-to-two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, according to the Resolution Copper Mining Mine Plan of Operations. The lawmakers who pitched the resolution say the mine would create jobs and provide essential copper to the military. Officials at Tonto National Forest are now reviewing the proposal and are expected to begin hosting public hearings on it later this year.
But where lawmakers see an opportunity for resource extraction, climbers see the possibility of wiping one of the country’s best bouldering areas off the map.
“If this mine goes through it would be the biggest loss of a rock climbing resource in U.S. history,” said Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting to keep rock climbing areas in the U.S. open and available.
The Access Fund isn’t the only outraged stakeholder group. The San Carlos Apache tribe, which claims the area in question as a sacred site, the local Sierra Club chapter, and the town council of Superior, situated just miles away from the proposed mine site, also oppose the mine. They cite the loss of recreation and the revenue that comes with having an influx of visitors, as well as the potential for environmental issues to emerge.
Plus, they say, the resolution that handed the land to the mining company creates a dangerous precedent. “You have a piece of legislation overturn a public land order that was created specifically to protect recreation and camping,” says Curt Shannon, an Arizona resident and policy analyst for the Access Fund. “If they can overturn that here, you can basically do that anywhere. What happens if they find a valuable mineral reserve under Yosemite?”
Public Land Orders are one of the many executive orders that U.S. Presidents and heads of the Department of the Interior use to set aside and protect land. They’ve been used to add to national parks, create national wildlife reserves, and augment national forest systems. Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, Taos Ski Valley in New Mexico, San Juan Archipelago in Washington, and many other public lands have all received protection.
The orders are most often executed by the Secretary of the Interior under the authority of the president, as was the case with Oak Flat. Orders function similarly to executive orders like the one President Obama employed last month to designate three new national monuments in Southern California. Most often they’re used to set aside recreationally significant areas within national forests to protect them from being used for timber, minerals, or other natural resource extraction. Basically, the orders exist to prevent exactly the type of proposal hovering above Oak Flat, which is why the environmental community so concerned.
“Anything not explicitly protected by Congress could be turned over to a private company for economic exploitation,” Shannon says. The Oak Flat resolution’s passage was underhanded, opponents say. “Something like this, that’s very controversial, that would have failed on an up or down vote,” Robinson says. "To sneak it into the National Defense Authorization Act is reprehensible."
Whether the mine proposal is approved may hinge on economic arguments put forward by both sides.
In a Facebook post from September, McCain lauded the mine as a means of bringing in “thousands of jobs and billions in economic activity for Arizona.” Resolution Copper estimates there is a copper ore the size of a mountain beneath Oak Flat, potentially worth $16 billion. “The Resolution Copper Mine Project has potential to produce 25 percent of U.S. copper demand by developing the largest copper deposit ever discovered in North America,” McCain wrote.
Critics say that economic argument is shopworn and shortsighted. “The whole jobs argument fundamentally denies the economic value of the land now and into the future,” Robinson says. The lifespan of the mine is about 40 to 60 years, he says, after which nothing will remain aside from a mile-wide crater and a huge mountain of toxic mine tailings. “If they truly cared about jobs they would invest in the long-term recreation economy,” Robinson says. “There’s this line you get about how extraction and mining, well that’s real business and recreation is just B.S.”
Outdoor recreation is more sustainable, mine opponents say. The Outdoor Industry Association, the leading trade association of the outdoor industry, estimates that outdoor recreation generates $10.6 billion in consumer spending in the state of Arizona alone, while providing 104,000 jobs in the state. A 2013 report from the Arizona Mining Association shows that mining contributes about half those numbers to the state economy. It provides a $4.87 billion impact to the economy while creating about $51,000 jobs according to the report.
The economic case for outdoor recreation leaves mine opponents with the hope they can turn the tide and convince enough people in the state to leave $16 billion worth of copper in the ground—an admittedly daunting prospect. Ultimately, the situation at Oak Flat can be viewed as a case study in our values as a society.
“Towns like Superior have to find out what they want—to be a hub for outdoor recreation or another boom or bust mining town with bad drinking water,” Robinson says.