Interior secretary tours proposed Ariz. mine site

PHOENIX – Compromise is possible on a proposed copper mine in southeastern Arizona that’s thought to contain the largest undeveloped deposit of high-grade copper in the world, Interior Secretary Kenneth Salazar said after touring the site Aug. 21.

Salazar was joined by Sen. John McCain and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick at a public forum attended by mine supporters and opponents. Salazar also met with tribal leaders who oppose the project in Superior.

Environmentalists also oppose the mine and the proposed swap of federal lands that would allow its development by Resolution Copper Mining. But supporters say it would provide jobs, economic growth and a steady stream of tax dollars.

“The members of the community need to have additional dialogue and I think with that there may be a solution,” Salazar said.

McCain and Sen. Jon Kyl, both Republicans, are backing legislation in the Senate authorizing the swap of federal and private lands. Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, introduced it in the House this session.

Any changes needed to bring opponents and supporters together would be considered, McCain said. “I think the secretary put his finger on it when he said that we have to have dialogue.”

Salazar and the Obama administration haven’t yet agreed to formally support the bill.

Salazar spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff said the visit was scheduled at the request of McCain, who earlier this year held up confirmation of two Interior appointees in an effort to get Obama administration support for the land swap.

McCain later backed off and the Senate confirmed Bob Abbey as director of the Bureau of Land Management and Wilma Lewis as the Interior Department’s assistant secretary for land and minerals management.

The mining project and land swap was at the center of a scandal involving former Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., who was indicted last year on an array of federal charges, including conspiracy, wire fraud, money laundering, insurance fraud, extortion and racketeering. Renzi says he’s innocent.

The proposed swap is strongly opposed by environmentalists, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, because it would allow the transfer of federal land to a mining company before environmental studies are done.

“Both bills make a joke out of the laws designed to protect the public,” chapter director Sandy Bahr said. “They basically thumbed their nose at the (National Environmental Policy Act).”

The proposed land swap would include Oak Flat campground, which was put off limits to mining by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It’s a key birding area and is well known for nearby rock climbing areas. The area is also considered sacred to the San Carlos Apache and Fort McDowell Yavapai Indian tribes.

Salazar and McCain later traveled to the Grand Canyon to meet U.S. Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado. Salazar’s visit was designed to highlight nearly $11 million in federal stimulus funding for canyon-area projects.

Salazar recently blocked new mining claims on about 1 million acres of federal land near the Grand Canyon. He wants to slow a flurry of planned new uranium mining operations while studies are done.

Salazar said he wanted to see firsthand what has made the Grand Canyon “an American icon” and a huge economic engine for northern Arizona. He said increasing tourism, while good, has put pressure on the national park’s facilities, and planned to discuss those problems and the threat of climate change on the area while touring the site with McCain and Udall.