Not to be confused with its similarly named mountains on the border of Argentina and Chile, the other Patagonia Mountains sit in southern Arizona about 15 miles from the Mexican border. The mountains – which ascend to over 7,000 feet – provide the scenic backdrop for the quiet town of Patagonia, as well as a major portion of the town’s water supply.
The Patagonia Mountains have been inhabited on and off by indigenous peoples, namely the Sobaipuri O’odham and Hohokam, for approximately 10,000 years. Exploration for mineral extraction started as early as the 17th century when European settlers arrived and combed the hills. By the late 19th century miners were pulling copper, silver, and lead from the mountains from tiny artisanal mines dug by hand. These mines—despite closing decades ago—have left a legacy of contamination problems still felt today.
“Patagonia’s historical mining left us with polluted water and abandoned sites even though mining ended by 1960,” said Wendy Russell, former coordinator for the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA). “I am not eager to see history repeated.”
But if history is repeated, it will be on a scale never seen before in Patagonia. Historic mines, often looked upon with the wonder of a gone era despite the contamination, consisted of small cabins, narrow tunnels and trails. Within a few years, they could be replaced by industrial haul roads buzzing with the sound of house-sized trucks, thousand foot deep pits, and outbuildings and infrastructure rivaling the scale of the town itself.
“The degradation of the local environment and all the amenities it supports would be an impact that could destroy our local economy,” said Nancy McCoy, a local resident and former bed and breakfast owner in Patagonia. “Yes, there are good reasons to be concerned.”
Patagonia Mountains threatened by 5 mining projects
Indeed, the Patagonia Mountains are targeted by numerous companies, with 5 exploration projects underway now at various levels of progress. These include Australian company South32, which is planning to develop an underground mine, and Canadian company Barksdale Resources. A January 2020 map of the mining claims in the Patagonia Mountains shows over 59,000 acres of claims: 450 acres of patented claims and 26,000 acres of unpatented claims (on United States Forest Service public lands) are controlled by South32; a little over 12,000 acres of claims are controlled by Barksdale Resources; and around 20,000 acres are controlled by mining company Rio Tinto for exploratory drilling. South32, which is expected to partially release their plans before the end of 2020, has said they intend to operate a fifty-year mine, which would guarantee massive ecological consequences for many generations to come.
“After experiencing 18 years of continuous drought, all water is precious,” said Russell.
Like many communities surrounded by federal lands—in this case the Coronado National Forest—Patagonia has little say in the fate of this mountain range thanks to the 1872 Mining Law, which gives mining companies the right to mine lands owned by the government without paying royalties. What’s worse, the nearby communities don’t have a say if mining should occur, as there is no democratic process behind mining on federal lands. Mining is the law of the land whether a community likes it or not.
The Patagonia Mountains have incalculable value. According to PARA, the area contains six different biological provinces: the Rocky and Sierra Madre Mountains, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts, the Great Plains, and the Neo Tropics. Because of this unique intersection of habitats and ecosystems, the area has 300 species of birds, 600 species of bees, 300 species of butterflies and moths, 14 hummingbird species, and 2 species of nectar-feeding fruit bats. In addition, the Mountains serve as a breeding ground and seasonal migration path for jaguars and ocelots.
All in all, there are 112 federal threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in the Patagonia Mountains. They are also part of the Madrean Pine-Oak Woodlands which scientists have said is one of the top places in the world in need of protection for species survival. These mountains are everyone’s backyard, and the protection of the mountains’ unique corridors and biodiversity will set the stage for the health of the planet. With such a unique ecosystem, any of the usual devastation or degradation from mining would be catastrophic.
Water at risk
As we have seen in so many other cases, large scale mining often comes with major water contamination risks, and the bigger the project, the larger the risks. Wildcat Silver, a Canadian mining company that was bought by another Canadian which was then bought by an Australian mining company, proposed plans for a mine in the middle of Patagonia’s municipal watershed that would risk generations of polluted water flowing towards towns. Luckily, Wildcat Silver’s open-pit mine plan was defeated, sparing Patagonia from the devastating water pollution that has happened in other communities, like the historic Keystone Mine within the town watershed of Crested Butte, Colorado. But water pollution is one of the most common risks of mining, and as long as companies are interested in the Patagonia Mountains, its residents (including the aforementioned threatened and endangered species) will never be entirely sure their water is safe
That’s only one example of a community faced with the perpetual contamination problems of mines, and while technology has certainly improved to mitigate these problems while a mine is operating, what hasn’t changed – and may never change – is the long term water contamination that in many cases is simply not preventable. Hard questions about the risks in Patagonia need to be asked now, not after mining companies are deep into the federal permitting process and are ready to build a polluting mine.
What’s left of main street in Hayden, Arizona, after the mining boom of decades past.
An unknown fate
Currently, road building, groundwater pumping, and exploratory drilling are slated to continue at the Hermosa project while people in Patagonia ponder the fate of the community they love, the silence and beauty that surrounds it, and the water that supplies it. Other projects are also gaining steam while the resources are proved up. What will become of Patagonia should it become an industrial town? Looking to other communities in Arizona where this has occurred before, not a whole lot is left.
The people of Patagonia should have a voice, not just about how a mine or several mines are developed, but if they should be developed at all. If a mining company can’t prove that it can operate cleanly, and be closed completely, without perpetual care, it shouldn’t be built at all. Otherwise, the decision should be made within the community, not by the federal government, and certainly not by the executives in Canada or Australia or their wealthy investors around the world.