Close to 300,000 trees, mostly junipers and oaks, would likely be cleared on public land in the Santa Rita Mountains if the proposed Rosemont Mine is built.
Clearing those trees will be controversial, but at this moment, it’s not known what will happen to them afterward. The U.S. Forest Service will charge Rosemont Copper for any cut trees removed from the site, and those proceeds will go to the federal Treasury. The trees, which are common, aren’t legally protected.
The Star learned the amount of trees slated for clearing last week after obtaining Forest Service documents on the subject under the federal Freedom of Information Act. The service estimates 23,261 cords of wood, or roughly 66,000 tons, are on public land slated for clearing. A cord measures 4 feet deep by 4 feet high by 8 feet long.
“Rosemont has agreed to buy them. … Some will be left on site for reclamation. Whatever is left over, then it’s their call what to do with them,” said Mindy Vogel, the Coronado National Forest’s geology and minerals program manager.
Mine opponents say the tree clearing would symbolize Rosemont’s ecological damage. They say the trees offer good habitat for many bird species in the area.
“Trees serve an important function — for carbon sequestration, for erosion control, for wildlife, for visual resources,” said Brian Powell, program manager for Pima County’s Office of Sustainability and Conservation. “There is cultural significance for the oak trees (for) the Tohono O’odham (tribe). They are just a very important, compelling part of the landscape.”
Rosemont officials won’t comment on the trees until the Forest Service releases a draft decision on the mine. Officials of Tucson businesses that sell firewood and wood for furniture making say a market exists for timber sold from the site, although there isn’t a shortage of it.
“The most environmentally sensitive way to do it is to bring in a company to chip it and leave behind the brush for erosion control, and the wood would be harvested and moved,” said Rick Westfall, owner of Arizona Cordwood, whose company has used these techniques on other projects. “If they push it over with a dozer, once it hits the dirt, it can’t be processed in an economically feasible way.”
Forest Service officials say tree remnants can be mixed with soil for reclamation, which is slated to begin when mining starts. The trees can stabilize soil and promote a variety of vegetation, the service said in its final Rosemont environmental impact statement.
Until final reclamation plans are approved — which won’t happen until after the service decides on the mine — it’s impossible to say how many trees will be used that way, Vogel said.
New trees will be planted for reclamation, but their locations aren’t worked out and have been a source of disagreement between the Forest Service and the mining company, records obtained by the Star show.
In its Rosemont environmental report, the Forest Service said 20 to 25 tons of “large woody material” per acre can be used for reclamation. Some material suitable for reclamation could be stored in temporary stockpiles, but no large-scale stockpiles would be maintained on public land, the statement said.
In July, Coronado official Michele Girard wrote in an email that while Rosemont Copper’s draft revegetation memo said the company will use all the woody debris on-site, since most of the area will be cleared and only a few hundred acres reclaimed in the first couple of years, “there will be way too much wood initially to use as it is generated.
“Then what do you do with what is left over? … ,” wrote Girard, the Coronado’s watershed program manager.
Nancy Freeman, a mine opponent in Green Valley, said that while leaving trees behind can stabilize slopes and stream banks, “it’s not going to make trees grow. We have stable slopes at the Mission Mine and the Sierrita Mine in Green Valley, and nothing’s growing.”
The Coronado Forest is scheduled to release a draft decision on the mine Friday.
The federal government charges $5 per cord for firewood to the public and $300 per cord for commercial sale.
In a statement, Rosemont Copper said until the draft decision appears, “and we know which alternative has been selected, and we know what the conditions of approval are, it would be inappropriate for us or anyone else to make assumptions, to speculate or to comment on the issue,” said Jamie Sturgess, the company’s senior vice president for corporate development and government affairs.
Last August, Coronado National Forest surveyors on foot found about 92 trees per acre on 3,171 acres of forest on the proposed mine site. While the company could ultimately decide some trees won’t need clearing, the service assumes in its environmental report that “they’re going to all be gone,” Vogel said.
Randy Serraglio of the Center for Biological Diversity said the tree clearing shows how destructive the mine will be, even though “the company wants us to think it’s an environmentally friendly mine and it’s going to not do that much damage.”
Arizona Cordwood’s Westfall said the mine is a badly needed project. “People are screaming for $15 an hour for jobs at McDonald’s, but it looks to me like Rosemont is going a lot further than that in an environmentally sensitive way. The project needs to move forward. If you are not growing jobs, you are dying.”