Environmental groups sue to block mining projects in the Patagonia Mountains

Robert Gay, an activist, walks in Humboldt Canyon on June 18, 2023, near Patagonia.
Robert Gay, an activist, walks in Humboldt Canyon on June 18, 2023, near Patagonia.

PATAGONIA — A coalition of local and national environmental groups sued the U.S. Forest Service Tuesday over its authorization of two mining exploration projects in the Patagonia Mountains of southern Arizona.

The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson alleges that the agency violated the National Environmental Protection Act by approving exploratory drilling for minerals without considering the cumulative effects of the area’s mining activity on water in the Sonoita Creek drainage or on endangered species including the Mexican spotted owl.

The two exploration districts, each within 4 miles to the south of the town of Patagonia, are near another district where the Australian mining company South32 is seeking approval to open the Hermosa Mine for minerals critical to electric vehicle production.

“Reckless exploratory mining has no place in the wild, biodiverse Patagonia Mountains,” Laiken Jordahl, Southwest conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release announcing the lawsuit. “Endangered species like jaguars, ocelots and Mexican spotted owls already face threats from border walls, climate change and habitat loss. The last thing these rare animals need is a new copper mine ravaging the heart of their Arizona range.”

Endangered owls and yellow-billed cuckoos are among birds that nest in the Patagonia Mountains. While jaguars and ocelots are not believed to have had breeding populations in Arizona in recent decades, individuals of both species at times have been confirmed roaming from Mexico into several southern Arizona ranges. The Patagonias straddle the border, providing a possible migration corridor.

Mining proposals would extract copper, silver, among other minerals

A portrait of Carolyn Shafer of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance in Humboldt Canyon on June 18, 2023, near Patagonia.
A portrait of Carolyn Shafer of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance in Humboldt Canyon on June 18, 2023, near Patagonia.

The Patagonias also historically hosted mining activity, including some abandoned tunnels visible along Forest Road 812, a mountainside gravel road that accesses the disputed sites at Flux and Humboldt canyons. Arizona Minerals, owned by South 32, seeks six drill pads there.

Farther south at a dead end in Humboldt Canyon, Arizona Standard, owned by Canadian mining company Barksdale Resources, seeks to drill up to 30 exploratory holes. Between the two projects the companies are prospecting for ores including copper, silver, lead and zinc.

The lands are on the Coronado National Forest, which approved the exploration this year. A spokesperson for the Forest Service said the agency would not comment on the lawsuit.

South32 Hermosa Project President Pat Risner provided a statement saying the company "keeps sustainability at the core of our approach" and will narrow Flux Canyon activities to about the size of a residential lot.

Risner said the company has more than a decade of environmental monitoring to back the work.

"Regularly conducted surveys have determined that no (endangered) listed plant or wildlife species, critical habitat, or cultural resources will be impacted," Risner added.

More on the mines: New southern Arizona mine slated for ecologically diverse Patagonia mountains

Barksdale Resources CEO Rick Trotman provided a written statement defending the Forest Service’s approval of his company’s exploration at Humboldt Canyon, called the Sunnyside project.

“The Forest Service decision on the Sunnyside project is the culmination of almost five years of extensive environmental review, public scoping and process,” he said. “We stand by the decision and are confident that it will stand up in court. The company stands by its thorough and conscientious approach to the protection of the natural environment.”

Joining the Center for Biological Diversity in challenging the approvals are the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, Earthworks, Friends of the Santa Cruz River, Friends of Sonoita Creek, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas and Tucson Audubon Society.

'This has become a cathedral to me'

Patagonia Area Resource Alliance President Carolyn Shafer toured the area with journalists from The Republic on Sunday, emphasizing that the mountains are a mixing zone of species from the north and south and a rare biodiversity hotspot.

She stopped at road’s end in Humboldt Canyon to admire the oaks, pines and grasses shaded by canyon walls where she said she has heard Mexican owls responding to calls. She has also officiated at a wedding there.

“I always say my favorite canyon is whatever one I’m in,” she said. “(But) if I had to make an exception, Humboldt Canyon is so unique and special. This has become a cathedral to me.”

She feared that she would not be able to return through years of exploration, after which the birds may be gone.

Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Reach him at brandon.loomis@arizonarepublic.com or follow on Twitter @brandonloomis.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in The Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: In mountains harboring endangered species, two firms seek minerals