Charade – An absurd pretense intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance. [as defined by Google]
This evening (June 11, 2013) I went to the meeting called by employees of the Coronado District of the US Forest Service (USFS) at the Patagonia, AZ high school. By the end of the meeting it was hard to tell whether these Forest Service employees, who have the power to give permits for mining in the Patagonia Mountains, are trying to fool us or are actually fooling themselves.
Although the individuals were very well spoken, all their answers were evasive. They would not explain the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process, because their expert on it was not there. They would not tell us what they would do in any situation, because every exploration proposal and every mining plan of operations is unique and at this specific time there are no active drill sites in the Coronado National Forest. They would not even say that if a mining company failed to get a water quality permit that was required for approval, that they would deny approval of the mine. They would not say this even in the abstract. Why is that?
I know why. At an earlier meeting like this called by the USFS, the audience was told that the USFS is required by the Mining Law of 1872 to expedite the rights of mining companies to extract minerals from public lands. At another meeting, the NEPA process was explained, and we were told that the USFS must work with the mining companies to improve their plan of operations so that it will be approved.
Tonight, one audience member made the analogy of a football game in which the referees publicly claim to be impartial but in reality have an agreement with one team to favor them in all decisions. I think the USFS people felt insulted by this analogy. If they were truly insulted, it is because they are fooling themselves. These individuals probably went into the Forest Service because they are passionate about the natural world. However, they are playing a game rigged against the natural world and the citizens who desire to protect it. If they don’t know that, it must be because they refuse to see it. If they know it and are telling us differently, they are trying to pull the wool over our eyes.
What are the rules of this game? Well, the USFS is supposed to work with mining companies to get their proposals and plans in sync with the laws of the land. Before the proposal even becomes official, the USFS meets with the company to help them write it. Case in point, they advised Wildcat Silver that they were requesting permission to drill too many exploratory holes. A few clicks of the delete key and the permitting process moved forward.
In other words, at each step of the process for approving mining permits, the permitting agency is legally required to help the applicant get approved. They even can help the applicant get around federal laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act so that the mine officially will not be perceived to be breaking those laws that are supposed to supersede the 1872 act.
However, citizens who oppose open pit mines are stopped at every turn by the NEPA process and the USFS employees implementing it. There is no requirement that the USFS play with an even hand and meet with citizens about their concerns. They have not advised us, “If you want to stop this mine, find an endangered species in the mountains.” We have to figure it all out by ourselves. Yes, there is a “scoping period” of thirty days in which citizens are asked to write the USFS about their concerns. But the notification of the scoping period dates is only required to be printed in the Sierra Vista Herald, a newspaper not published or sold in Santa Cruz County and a paper that most people living in the area most to be affected by mines in the Patagonia Mountains do not see. In addition, the USFS is not even required to respond to objections or points made in the scoping comments. It is only required to read them, but not to seriously consider them in its deliberations. How did I learn this? USFS employees told me!
The meeting this evening was an exercise in futility. At the end, one audience member labeled it a charade. The USFS can check off another “public meeting with concerned citizens,” if they want to obliviously pat themselves on the back. The sham accomplished nothing. Clearly, the deck is legally stacked against anyone who works to keep mines out of mountains or public lands.
What could happen to keep open pit mines out of the Patagonia Mountains? Even if we prove that a mine’s water use would deplete or pollute the town of Patagonia’s water supply, the USFS can still approve an open pit mine. Even if we photograph a mother jaguar with two cubs in the Patagonia Mountains, the USFS can still approve the mine. I say we need a principled, clear-eyed, clear-thinking person to step forward out of the fray. Yes, we need a hero willing to do what is right no matter what. We need that person to deny approval of mines and to convince others that their passion for the natural world requires a commitment to stand up for it when it counts. And that “when” is now. I call on Mark Ruggiero to look in the mirror and become that hero.