Folio — From the September 2018 issue

Range Wars

A copper rush sparks last-ditch battles for Arizona’s soul

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Silver Bell Mine, just northwest of Tucson, Arizona, is shielded from the suburban homes nearby behind rocky hills and barbed wire. Seen from above, it is an upside-down Machu Picchu: vast open pits terraced deep into the earth, some with bright-­turquoise, toxic pools at the bottom. House-size trucks haul copper ore under a ghostly haze of dust. Rock, 1.8 million tons a month, piles high along the perimeter. At 19,000 acres, the mine site is larger than Manhattan.

[caption id="attachment_270081" align="aligncenter" width="630"]Samuel James Rosemont Mine Santa Rita Mountains southern Arizona All photos © Samuel James.
The site of the proposed Rosemont Mine in the Santa Rita Mountains of southern Arizona. This open-pit mine, a project of the Canadian mining corporation Hudbay Minerals, is nearing final approval after more than a decade of debate. The mine could devastate the landscape, deplete already limited water supplies, and endanger vulnerable local wildlife.[/caption]

The view is mesmerizing, almost beautiful in a way, until its significance sinks in. This hellscape was once rich, saguaro-studded Sonoran desert, and Silver Bell—which is now fighting to take 11,000 adjacent acres from the Ironwood Forest National Monument—is just one part of a bigger picture. It’s also, very likely, a preview of worse to come.

Copper has been central to Arizona’s psyche since territorial days. Today, with a copper-star flag flying at the copper-domed capitol in Phoenix, the state still accounts for a huge amount of America’s production—68 percent—and the industry is growing. But with only about 0.3 percent of the workforce employed in copper mining, it is not the economic powerhouse it once was. The state’s real asset is the natural grandeur that draws visitors from across the continent and the oceans. The compact Santa Rita mountain range alone, between Tucson and the Mexican border, offers one of the country’s richest patches of biodiversity: wetlands, grasslands, desert, and thorny scrub, rising through thick forests to high cliffs and sheltering threatened species from orchids to jaguars.

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is a photographer based in North Carolina.


is a reporter based in Arizona and France. The text of this story was supported by the ­McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Ana Arana contributed to it.

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Works of Mercy

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