The Origins of the Chiricahua Regional Council
By Noel Snyder
The Chiricahua Regional Council had its origins in the 1990s battle to prevent transformation of Portal into a gold-mining town that would be beset with all the problems that commonly afflict such towns. It was an outgrowth of an ad hoc organization called the Portal Mining Action Coalition (PMAC) that successfully opposed the mining development.
Portal sits near the geological interface of a volcanic rock region with a limestone region where gold deposits are often found, and in 1990 the town faced the announced prospect of a giant open-pit gold mine on National Forest lands just to the southeast of the Portal Store. (The picture above shows the Coronado National Forest slopes overlooking the town of Portal that were staked for potential gold mining in 1990.) Newmont Mining Corporation had staked the area and was anticipating cyanide heap-leaching operations of pulverized rock removed from the pit. Such operations offered threats of cyanide pollution of ground waters, not to mention dust pollution and many social effects, plus numerous spin-off impacts on the unique biota of Cave Creek Canyon. It would have completely transformed Cave Creek Canyon had it come to pass.
The U.S. Forest Service claimed there was absolutely nothing it could do to stop such development once a minable deposit was demonstrated because the General Mining Act of 1872 was still on the books—even though townspeople and numerous users of Cave Creek Canyon living elsewhere almost unanimously opposed such development. Nevertheless, the Forest Service does indeed have the power to deny mineral development through administrative mineral withdrawal of any of its lands. The problem has been that this organization has always followed a policy of never initiating such action as a response to a mining proposal. The result has always been the same: the Forest Service gives priority to mineral development on lands not already withdrawn from mineral entry—the very great majority of its lands. The Forest Service is indeed a multiple-use organization, but as a result of this policy, its land-use decisions have traditionally favored mining over all other uses. Most people in the public are unaware of this tradition, however, and unaware that nearly all Forest Service lands could be converted to mining operations just by a commercial interest demonstrating that minable resources might exist on these lands. While legally, the Forest Service did and still does have the power to turn down any mining proposal by initiating a withdrawal before a minable deposit is proven, the chances it might do so for Cave Creek Canyon appeared vanishingly small when the Service itself was telling the public that it had no way to stop the mining development.
However, the Forest Service said it was obligated to consider any proposal for mineral withdrawal submitted to it. Consequently, a local group of Portal citizens, calling themselves the Portal Mining Action Coalition (PMAC) embarked on making such a formal proposal for Cave Creek Canyon, even though the prospects for success appeared discouragingly low.
More importantly, PMAC, the precursor to the Chiricahua Regional Council, also began other initiatives to protect the Portal area from a prospective open-pit mine, namely:
(1) parallel efforts to have the lands involved withdrawn from mineral entry congressionally, a separate process from Forest Service withdrawal and not subject to the same traditions and restrictions,
(2) an initiative to persuade Newmont Mining Corporation to voluntarily abandon its plans to mine the area, and
(3) a massive public education campaign to elicit support from the public to protect Cave Creek Canyon.
These alternative routes all proved highly successful, while the efforts to persuade the Forest Service to exercise its administrative authority to provide a satisfactory solution never achieved success.
In particular, the public education campaign of PMAC resulted in tens of thousands of letters going to the Forest Service, the Arizona Congressional Delegation, and Newmont Mining Corporation asking for long-term protection of Cave Creek Canyon. A meeting that PMAC requested with Newmont Mining Corporation was held in Portal and proved cordial and productive. PMAC asked Newmont to form an evaluation committee to study the unique values of Cave Creek Canyon that would be affected by mining development. Newmont did form such a committee, and, within only a few months the committee recommended that Newmont not follow through with mining development of the area. The Newmont decisionmakers agreed.
By late 1990, the company announced that, while it now supported mineral withdrawal of the lands involved, it would hold on to its claims to prevent other mining interests from staking the lands and renewing mining threats to the region while the area was not yet withdrawn from entry. Thus, very early in the effort, Newmont became our most crucial ally in efforts to protect the canyon.
The door now stood open for withdrawal of the lands from mineral entry, either administratively by the Forest Service or congressionally. However, the Forest Service never even considered the administrative proposal submitted by PMAC, despite the considerable investment of time and energy PMAC had given to this proposal. Instead, the Forest Service informed PMAC that the only way it would support withdrawal of the lands involved was if the area were to become part of a giant National Recreation Area, something that PMAC could not support. Fortunately, the alternative congressional route to withdrawal, separate from the Forest Service route, was ultimately successful, without including any baggage of a National Recreation Area development scheme. Important support for the congressional withdrawal came from both our local representative, Jim Kolbe, and from Senator John McCain, as well as from the entire Arizona delegation.
On August 2, 1993, three years after the mining proposal first surfaced, President Bill Clinton signed a bill protecting Cave Creek Canyon from such development. The whole effort was nonpartisan and had tremendous support nationally.
This effort led simultaneously to the formation of a locally based citizens conservation organization that could address local natural resource protection issues much more generally, not just mining issues: that organization is the Chiricahua Regional Council (CRC). The town of Portal had been taken by surprise by the gold mine but was becoming well aware that this issue was just one of many to be expected in the future. Citizen input might well be crucial to resolve competing interests in every one of those future issues.
The Chiricahua Regional Council was incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization in 1993. Its core leadership? The very same people who had been primary members of the PMAC—a full cross-section of the local community.
The first issue additional to the mining battle itself to be handled in this evolution of a concerned citizenry was another controversy already mentioned involving the Forest Service. This was Coronado National Forest’s proposal to create a National Recreation Area encompassing the Chiricahua, Catalina, and Pinaleno Mountains. This proposal was stimulated by the availability of Great Outdoors Initiative monies of the first Bush administration, and the Coronado was competing with other national forests for these funds. This was not a proposal born from widespread citizen demand, and in fact it was opposed almost unanimously by all segments of local communities, ranging from ranchers to concerned environmentalists. However, creation of a National Recreation Area demands congressional approval and entails public meetings to demonstrate citizen support for such a proposal. Public meetings were held all over Cochise County, and the PMAC/CRC was active in ensuring widespread attendance. The proposal received virtually no support from the public and had to be abandoned.
The campaign to oppose formation of a National Recreation Area, together with the successful achievement of mineral withdrawal of Cave Creek Canyon convinced many residents that formation of a nongovernmental organization to safeguard natural values in the region was an essential goal. As it stands today, the Chiricahua Regional Council has become an organization concerned with all sorts of conservation issues in the general region of the Chiricahuas. While sometimes opposing the Forest Service, CRC also works cooperatively with the agency. Examples include trail maintenance and development, as well as much wider community issues involving a full range of private and governmental agencies.
CRC is not a partisan group and always seeks the widest possible consensus of concerned citizens for policies that favor long-term protection of natural values. Membership of the organization includes people from across the nation.