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The Planet
Finally, Faith Over Fashion

Pumice Mine on Sacred Peaks to Close

by Jenny Coyle

It used to be that when you got the answering machine in Andy Bessler's Sierra Club office in Arizona, you heard two requests: leave a message, and don't buy stone-washed jeans.

What? Fashion tips from the Sierra Club?

Not exactly. The "stone" in "stone-washed" is pumice - a porous, volcanic rock that gives jeans a worn-in feel. For decades, the extraction of this rock from the White Vulcan Pumice Mine has been destroying habitat on the beautiful San Francisco Peaks in Arizona.

But that's about to come to an end. In six months, the digging will stop. Dirt will be smoothed over a shredded hillside. Native grasses and trees will be planted. And a mountain range beloved to environmentalists and Native Americans will once again be still.

On Aug. 28, an agreement was signed between the federal government and Tufflite, Inc., to close the open-pit mine.

"We're thankful that the unique cultural and ecological values of the Peaks have finally been recognized as being more important than a fashion trend," said Bessler. "If you want your jeans to have that lived-in look, try working in them in for awhile."

According to the terms of the agreement, Tufflite will stop mining pumice by Feb. 28, 2001. The company has 10 years to remove a large stockpile of pumice - about 500,000 cubic yards -that has already been mined. Within five years, Tufflite must backfill, grade and contour the site, replace soils and re-seed the land with native grasses.

Also, the government will pay Tufflite $1 million - a sum expected to be allocated by Congress in the 2001 budget appropriations process now under way - and the company will relinquish its mining claims on 8,000 acres of land in the area.

"It's a big victory to pay only $1 million and get the company to give up its claims, especially in light of the 1872 Mining Law, which gave Tufflite free rein on public land," said Sharon Galbraith, conservation chair for the Grand Canyon (Arizona) Chapter. "This was a company that sought to expand its operation as recently as 1998. There won't be any new mining, and that's a big win."

Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Lyons signed the pact on behalf of the federal government. It marks the end of a decade-long battle that picked up steam two years ago when the Sierra Club and Hopi and Navajo activists teamed up to shut down the mine, located on land managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Bessler was fighting the mine as a Flagstaff Activist Network volunteer and finishing his master's thesis on cultural anthropology when the Sierra Club hired him. The Club had made the Peaks an Environmental Public Education Campaign site, pledging to back the cause with money and other support.

The first move for Bessler and the "Save the Peaks, Stop the Mine" campaign was to forge powerful coalitions with Native American tribes, many of whom signed resolutions opposing the mine. It was tricky, maneuvering through complex customs and working through millennia-old disputes between tribes, but Bessler dove in, sometimes helping to harvest corn in exchange for someone's volunteer time, or driving long distances to meet on the reservation or give someone a ride.

"Andy went out and got the tribal support we hadn't been able to get before," said Galbraith, an activist for two decades.

The campaign also garnered some 6,000 signatures opposing the mine - many of them scrawled on pairs of jeans. At a well-attended press conference, Bessler submitted the signed jeans to the Forest Service to be included as official public comments in the fight against the mine.

Activists also held rallies, powwows and concerts, marched in parades and tabled at a variety of events. Their work apparently got Babbitt's attention: He visited the mine in April and called it "a sacrilege." Shortly after, the settlement talks began.

"I'm happy now, but I will feel even better when everything is signed, sealed and delivered as promised," said Navajo activist and Sierra Club member Sammy M. James.

To Take Action:
Write Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and thank him for protecting both the cultural and ecological values of the San Francisco Peaks.

Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt
Department of the Interior
1849 C St. NW
Washington, DC 20240


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