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Moolah Gap

Took a ride last Thursday up Gunsight Pass in the Santa Rita Mountains south of Tucson. The DSCF1083sky island sprawls north and south east of the quaint village of Green Valley.

There is a road that goes west from Arizona 83 that leads through much of what is the Rosemont Ranch and soon to be Rosemont open pit copper mine. The mine site sits on the east slope of the Santa Ritas. Two great requirements for the mine — electricity and water — are on the other side of the Santa Ritas. A power and water line will have to be built leading from the west side of the mountain and mostly over Gunsight Pass, a peak of about 5,600 feet. The pass is toward the northern end of the mountain range just above Helvetia, the site of another mine and ranch.

Took the ride now because most likely will not be able to do so in near future. Once the Forest Service approves operation of the Rosemont, construction will begin and the road will be closed off to four-wheel traffic.

There’s little doubt that the project will be approved. The mine’s owner, Augusta Resources — a Canadian company — has been patiently doing what is required, managing jots and titles, courteous when jeered by opponents, contributing to the community as a good corporate citizen and praising the positives of copper mining while putting a smiley face on nasty mining byproducts like tailings and contaminated water.

The basic reason the project will be approved is that a 19th century law governs mining in America, and makes it mostly a holy writ and unqualified right to mine the land: The General Mining Act of 1872 signed by Ulysses S. Grant, my personal favorite alcoholic head of state. I like  Grant as much as anyone with a $50 bill, but he was a bit of a spendthrift with natural treasure. Of course the Congress of the United States merits direct blame, then as now rife with those who did not hesitate to ravage the land.DSCF1075

Once Augusta receives official approval, Tucson Electric will build a power line. Augusta will add a waterline. They will be built together, following generally the Santa Rita Road.

It is an easy trip going up the east slope. The dirt road poses no obstacles until you reach the summit. Beyond this point, the track is less a road and more a rocky gully. It is easy to slip-slide away. Sharp rocks dot the track like thumbs. My Forester, which would well be named Rocinante, came down the treacherous west side with only slight travail. It would be much more difficult climbing, the rise is steep, and the track is seriously narrow at various points.

Thus, the construction of the power and water lines will not be a walk in the park. It will be necessary to pump the water up and over the mountain. I once thought that the sight of a power line running up the north end of the Santa Ritas would be an ugly blemish seen from 1-19. But not to worry. It will be seen only by a few present and future souls in  Sahuarita.

Green Valley residents won’t see it. Which is only fair because the gentle folk of that unincorporated town have already contributed a generous portion of their water allotment to the cause of Rosemont copper mining, at a price of course. And are already treated to an enormous open pit copper mine right next to them — the Sierrita Mine operated by Freeport McMoRan.

I have heard that it will cost Augusta Resources a billion or so dollars to build the mine. A few years ago when I took the mine tour, our tour leader, who was a mining engineer, said it would take only a couple years to pay back that cost. The supposed 20-year life of the project allegedly would produce $10 billion. That is, of course, an estimate based upon the current price of copper, a commodity subject to marketplace caprice.

Someone has argued that billions in revenue and 450 high-paying jobs over 20 years amounted to too little money to justify construction of the mine. Seems odd, that reasoning. Reminds me of a story variously attributed to George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill and W. C. Fields: Guy asks a woman if she will sleep with him for a million. She says oh yes!  He then says how about for a dollar. She says what do you think I am? That, he says, has been established; now we’re just haggling over price.

When it comes to money, Augusta seems a bit of an odd duck. For years it has produced little or no revenue, mostly none. According to Yahoo Finance, it has a debt of more than $92 million. Its stock price hovers at $1.25 per share. A little less than half of the company’s stock is held by institutions or mutual funds. “Show me the money,” does not apply to Augusta, ain’t none. But no one questions that there will be lots of cash when Augusta gets its green light. Nonetheless, it seems a keen shell game; company makes no money, stock’s hardly worth spit and is half-owned by a bunch of distant corporations who don’t even tap their feet, waiting to get paid. But billions will come. How does you get in this game? My dog can blow on the dice as well as the next guy.

It’s a burning question, how to get in on the Big Moolah? There is a certainly a Moolah gap, between those who have created the odd duck and us little people who get to stand by and watch very big shovels scoop the earth.

For example, I notice a fellow calling himself a mining engineer has written an article that appeared last week (January 17, 2014) on the editorial page of the Arizona Daily Star. He contends a whole lot of us little people are going to cash in on the Rosemont action. He crows loudly. Here is what that mining engineer Dave Elfor says is how little people will clean up:

“What waitress wouldn’t want a $20 tip from a Rosemont employee taking his/her family out to dinner? And will that waitress spend her $20 tip? Absolutely, and someone else gets a piece of the action. And how many local government employees will receive income from the $19 million a year received as tax revenue?”

Now there’s a boon if ever there was one! Great glorious happy Andy Jackson, $20 for a happy flush waitress. But there is answer to that rhetorical question, “What waitress wouldn’t want a $20 tip”?. The answer is: the waitress who served a customer that ran up a bill of more than $600. That $20 amounts to a 3 percent tip. Not a whole lot of goody-goody gumdrops in that notion, is there. You might expect the waitress to spit some epithets and tear up the $20 and throws it in the tipper’s copper-tainted face. So instead of the grateful waitress, she’s hopping mad that Mr. Rosemont employee is a rich and miserable cheapskate. The $19 million a year that Mr. Elfor considers such a munificent sum of money amounts to a 2.77 of Augusta’s anticipated yearly revenue. It’s no secret how little people remain little.

The trip up and down the mountain did not take long. Stopped for lunch on the way down. Sat on the edge of the mountain like rich waiters with $20 tips, the vast Sonoran Desert looming before us, the Sierrita Mine in the distance rising like Ozymandias, a sprawling enormous pile of dead dirt.

I dined on bottled water, cold chicken and chocolate chip cookies. A four wheel truck came by going up the mountain, two young men in the front with a couple kids in the rear cab. It was not too long before we saw the truck coming down, but in reverse, backing down. Must have run into an impassable obstacle. The driver found a wide spot to turn around and came by on his way down. I waved. They nodded.

It’s good that it’s not a popular route. When the Forest Service finally gives its approval, this place will be overrun with construction crews, lots of workers with jobs and 20-dollar bills for tips. After they’re gone, the open pit Rosemont Mine will operate much out of sight and out of mind. And for 20 years, the big tips will just roll in.

It was a beautiful winter day on the western slope of the Santa Rita Mountains, high above the Moolah Gap.


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