The state’s congressional delegation has lined up behind a controversial land exchange that will create an estimated 3,700 local jobs in Southern Gila County and clear the way for a deeply buried copper deposit worth an estimated $62 billion.
In introducing a bill to approve the land exchange, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott), who represents Northern Gila County, teamed up with one-time rival Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff), who represents Southern Gila County. Three other Arizona Republican congressmen signed on as co-sponsors.
Meanwhile in the Senate, Sen. John McCain and newly elected Sen. Jeff Flake introduced a companion measure.
The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act would trade 2,400 acres near Globe for 5,000 acres scattered throughout the state — mostly “high value conservation land,” that would protect endangered species, sensitive ecosystems, recreational sites and historic landmarks.
Gosar in a release said “this bill is a win-win for Arizona and for our nation. It will create over 3,700 high-paying jobs, increase U.S. energy and mineral independence, and preserve some of rural Arizona’s most beautiful natural lands. Even though this common sense proposal has overwhelming bipartisan support, it has been held up for years by trivial political bickering in Washington.”
Kirkpatrick’s statement said “My vision for Arizona is a diversified and stable ecnomy. The Superior mine fits into that vision and is crucial to the communities and constituents in my district. This project has faced opposition from tribal and environmental groups over the years and I believe their voices should be heard during this process.”
The Rio Tinto mining company wants the land in the Oak Flat area of Tonto National Forest to start mining a huge deposit of ore about 7,000 feet beneath the surface. The plan calls for the foreign-owned mining company to use robots to drill into the ore body, then create vast caverns as it removes the ore. The caverns will likely eventually collapse, causing the surface to sink 7,000 feet. The boulders piled up in the Oak Flat area is a popular recreational area, especially for climbers. Several Apache tribes also consider the site sacred, with medicine men collecting plants there and families going to collect acorns from the oaks.
The San Carlos Apache Tribe opposes the land swap in its current form. Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler has said that the land hasn’t been appraised and the mining company’s claims of benefit to the local economy are wildly exaggerated. For instance, a similar robot-dominated mine in Australia employs fewer than 100 miners, said Rambler. Moreover, the mine will consume 40,000 acre-feet of water annually — about 20 times as much water as Payson uses annually.
However, the lawmakers backing the land swap say the trade will result in the protection of much more environmentally important lands and tap into copper deposits that could eventually provide about 20 percent of the nation’s needs. The jobs will generate $220 million in annual wages and have an annual economic impact on the region of $1 billion.
In a prepared statement, Sen. Flake said “this bill presents Congress with a rare opportunity to approve a measure that not only allows for the creation of thousands of private-sector jobs at no cost to the federal government, but to protect thousands of acres of environmentally sensitive land.”
“We won’t let Congress overlook how important this land exchange is for Arizona and our nation,” said McCain. “It is shameful that some in Congress have played politics with this proposal for seven years and it is now costing hard-working families their livelihoods as the layoffs announced in December (by Rio Tinto in Globe) continue. We are working together across party lines to breathe new life into this tremendous opportunity.”