Patagonia Residents Disagree on Town’s Economic Future
By Katherine Sypher, Calah Schlabach, Franco LaTona and Haillie Parker
Hidden amid rolling hills and grassy golden valleys nearly 20 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border is the town of Patagonia, where small business is the only business and stoplights are nonexistent.
Mining company trucks, identifiable by their waving orange flags, wind down Patagonia’s country roads. They are returning from an exploratory drilling site in the Coronado National Forest, where the Australia-based mining company South32 has been searching for evidence of zinc, lead, silver and other hardrock mineral deposits since 2018.
South32 is one of at least two mining operations probing for minerals beneath the Patagonia mountains, the first companies to operate in the area since the 1950s.
Some of the town’s 900 residents say the return of mining is boosting Patagonia’s local businesses. Others say preserving the town’s natural resources would be better for the town’s future. This debate mirrors other debates in communities across the country, pitting environmental protections against economic growth.
Nancy Coyote, chairperson of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, a nonprofit watchdog group dedicated to preserving the area’s environment, said the drilling projects will only continue over her “dead, dried desiccated body.”
However, Gerry Isaac, owner of the Stage Stop Inn, said that as long as society needs minerals to manufacture goods, these minerals need to come from somewhere, including Patagonia.
“We didn’t decide where they got put, but that’s where they’re going to be mined. That’s where they’re going to be developed. We just happen to be in a place where that is,” Isaac said.
No companies are mining for minerals yet in Patagonia, but current federal law favors the profitable industry. While some locals said drilling should cease in order to preserve the natural environment, other residents welcome the support mining companies give to the small town’s economy.
Mining: Controversial, but Profitable
In the late 1800s, in an effort to lure settlers to the sparsely populated American West, the federal government passed the General Mining Law of 1872, which made it easy for settlers to mine on federal public land.
The law, which still largely controls mineral mining today, allows individuals and companies to acquire public land for mining at $5 an acre, plus fees, and doesn’t require miners to pay royalties to the federal government.
Critics like Carolyn Shafer, a board member of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance, say the law is outdated. Shafer said it doesn’t account for modern technological advances that allow modern mining companies to remove more ore from the ground than historic mining operations could 150 years ago.
The most recent attempt to change the law was made this year by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Tucson. However, it’s unlikely his proposed changes will become law due to opposition in Congress.
“It’s a mess,” said Luke Danielson, Clark Chair in Environment and Sustainability at Western Colorado University, speaking on the difficulty of changing federal mining law.
Other experts say mining companies have become more environmentally and socially conscious.
“I think that the people making decisions within mining companies have grown up in an era of environmental responsibility that makes them very much more aware of what is acceptable behavior,” said John Lacy, director of the Global Mining Law Center and professor of practice at the University of Arizona.
Despite critics’ frustrations with current federal mining regulations, non-carbon mineral production is a significant contributor to the U.S. economy.
A 2019 report by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Geological Survey valued raw minerals mined in the U.S. at over $82 billion in 2018. That same year, the products made with extracted minerals were estimated to be worth nearly $3 trillion.
According to the same report, in 2018 Arizona contributed the second-highest amount of nonfuel minerals of any state, and produced more than $2 billion in revenue from the industry.
This revenue potential attracts mining companies from all over the world to look for minerals in Patagonia.
Mining: Here to Stay
In a town whose history has been defined by mining since its founding, local gas station owner Charlie Montoy said the mining companies are here, “and they’re here to stay.”
In August, Arizona Standard, a Nevada-based company affiliated with the Canadian mining company Regal Resources, proposed a revised exploratory drilling project to search for minerals on 12 acres of land in the Patagonia Mountains.
The “Sunnyside” project is located in the Coronado National Forest and requires authorization from the U.S. Forest Service. Four years ago, a federal judge halted a similar proposal, citing environmental concerns. The company’s renewed proposal is currently under review.
The Sunnyside proposal is small compared to South32’s Hermosa project, which is already underway and spans 450 acres near Patagonia. South32 purchased the land, part of which was damaged by earlier mining projects, in 2018.
Currently, South32 is working to restore the land in a process called reclamation, also known as remediation. At the same time, the company continuously operates seven drilling rigs in search of minerals, according to a company spokesperson.
In July, South32 CEO Graham Kerr said in a statement that the exploratory drilling conducted by the company at the site has “increased our confidence in the project.”
An economic impact report commissioned by the mining company that owned the Hermosa project prior to South32 found that an underground mine at the site would contribute $676 million to Arizona’s economy annually.
Lee McPheters, a research professor of economics at Arizona State University and coauthor of the report, said in an email that the mine was projected to have a 33-year lifespan and “peak direct employment of 525 workers.” South32 plans to finish its pre-feasibility report by the end of the 2020 fiscal year. Until then, it plans to continue drilling. So far, South32 has identified zinc, lead and silver deposits at the Hermosa site.
“It is a bit unusual because we don’t have any zinc mines in Arizona. So, it may be a very critical operation for the available mineral resources,” Lacy said.
Jim Pendleton, owner of a local fabrication and auto repair shop, said he believes mining is preferable to importing minerals from overseas.
“We might as well get them here at home than buy them someplace else,” he said.
In addition to providing necessary minerals for modern life, Pendleton said mine workers have stimulated the town’s economy.
In the time since the exploratory drilling project started, the town’s main grocery store extended its hours to accommodate the workers’ schedules, he said.
Montoy said his business has increased because workers from the drill sites bring their trucks to him for detail work.
Mike Shoemaker, owner of a local RV park, said his lot is busier all year because workers live there for months or years at a time.
Despite the increased activity from mine employees in town, Isaac said a significant portion of the clientele at his hotel are still “ecotourists,” people who visit Patagonia for recreational activities like hunting, hiking, birding and camping.
Isaac has asked ecotourists if they would stop coming to Patagonia if drilling projects expanded, but “the answer is pretty uniformly no,” he said.
Ecotourism: A Viable Alternative
Standing tall above Patagonia is Red Mountain. The mountain is one of many that form what scientists call “sky islands,” areas where mountains are isolated by radically different ecosystems. These areas are home to a diverse array of species, including some that don’t exist anywhere else.
“Biologically, it’s a very important place,” said Peter Reinthal, an adjunct associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona.
Roaming the sky islands are endangered species like the ocelot and the jaguar. Swimming in the Sonoita creek are species like the endangered gila topminnow.
Water is precious to residents of Patagonia. Since the town is part of an arid region, every human activity raises concern about water usage. Critics of mining are concerned mines could contaminate the local water supply and drain local aquifers.
“Water matters more than mining,” Shafer said.
In addition to water concerns, Patagonia’s diverse and biologically important ecosystem is a key reason why drilling should not happen in Patagonia, said Nicole Gillett, a conservation advocate at the Tucson Audubon Society.
According to the National Audubon Society, Arizona is at the intersection of two main bird migration paths and boasts 550 species, the highest diversity of species for a non-coastal space.
This makes Patagonia a top destination for birders, who know they can “knock out their checklists” of bird species in one visit, Gillett said. Birders visiting Patagonia can spot species like the western yellow-billed cuckoo and the violet-crowned hummingbird, among hundreds of others.
Environmentalists and those in town who rely on ecotourism worry mining could undermine Patagonia as a tourist destination.
Kate Tirion is the founder of Deep Dirt Institute, an educational nonprofit that offers teaching on sustainable agriculture in arid environments. Tirion is one of many Patagonia residents who want the town to build a nature-based economy: a local economy sustained by the area’s natural resources, through businesses like small farms, wineries and guide services.
“This is a place people come to find a place to renew, to feel less harried and to appreciate the landscape and the wildlife that’s here,” she said.
Mining was once a foundational element of the town. But Shafer said that, when the last mining boom ended, “the community created a thriving nature-based economy.”
Today, Patagonia’s streets feature art galleries, real estate offices, coffee shops, restaurants, parks, a museum and a small opera house. A quick stop in the visitor’s center reveals locals willing to take visitors on walking and driving tours of the town and nearby mountains.
Patagonia would not be the first place in Arizona to brand itself as a nature-based economy. According to Shafer and Gillett, towns in northern Arizona did it years ago.
“A lot of towns have been following the Verde Valley model, ” said Gillett.
Verde Valley, home to the popular tourist town of Sedona, offers visitors the chance to hike, raft and taste wine. Gillett and Shafer imagine a future where Patagonia follows a similar path.
But, Gillett said, there needs to be “full community buy-in to form a nature-based economy.” With mining companies offering well-paying jobs, not everyone in town may be on board.
“A healthy environment benefits everyone, but it doesn’t matter if you don’t have a job, if you’re not able to live there,” said Gillett. “Until you’re able to offer people a real tangible alternative (to mining), you’re not there.”
Where to go from here
Despite residents’ disagreements about what’s best for the town, most agree that Patagonia is a special place to live.
“Given the chaos of the times, there is no other place nor any other group of people that I want to be with than those of us who have gathered here in the Patagonia Mountains,” Shafer said.
They may not all agree, however, on what makes it so special.
“We didn’t decide to put the minerals in the mountain back here, that was done a few million years ago, but that’s where they are,” said Isaac.
Isaac said he believes as long as the mining is conducted responsibly, it’s something all residents should try to coexist with and learn to benefit from.
“I am not against mining in its correct applications. Mining serves us,” Shafer said. “The question is, how are these projects going to serve the reality of this community?”
Patagonia Mayor Andrea Wood, who grew up in Patagonia and has children and grandchildren there, said townspeople should preserve the town for future generations..
“What are you leaving for [others], when you got to have part of this beautiful space?” Wood asked. “What have you left?”
Background photos by Calah Schlabach and Katherine Sypher