Where Are We –September 2013
In July of 2012 the Queen Creek Coalition of rock climbers reached a historic deal with Resolution Copper. Since first learning about it in 2004, QCC and its predecessors have been evaluating their options. QCC developed deep relationships with most of the stakeholders, including representatives in Congress who will vote on the Land Exchange legislation. Many arguments have been tried, and QCC has taken measure of what the decision makers will listen to and what falls on deaf ears. The leadership of QCC has years of experience in the public sector successfully obtaining important climbing goals.
While it is true that the Land Exchange legislation has failed to pass in the past decade, it has come close and climbers have had very little to do with the reasons for its past failures. In different congresses it has passed both chambers of congress. While the opponents would have to continue to “win” each year forever that copper is still valuable, Resolution has to “win” only once and the dye is cast. And if one looks at Congressional proceedings, there seem to be only two big picture issues hanging up passage now – when is NEPA review going to occur, and who will make the public determination of the merits of the Land Exchange. Rock climbing does not have much to do with it.
Why did QCC strike a deal with Resolution?
Climbers have faced only two real alternatives – either negotiate the best deal they could, or hold to their high ideals and principles and fall on their swords if they lost. The alternatives are a contrast of realism versus idealism. In the real world, the Mine or Land Exchange will occur. And if either happened and climbers haven’t negotiated the best deal they can, climbers would be left with nothing.
Let’s start with the first element of the picture. Much of the really good climbing is on land owned by Resolution Copper. The Pond and Atlantis, as well as portions of the Mine area are the private property of Resolution. Climbers have no right to be on their private land without their approval. As a mining company they are motivated to make things ‘safe’, and Resolution has strong forces within it that feel climbing and mining are incompatible and that Resolution should not allow rock climbing on their land. It was a huge win for climbers to have been able to retain that prime rock climbing.
Second, even without the Land Exchange, Resolution can mine under current law on USFS land. Mining law allows a mining company to stake claims and file a plan of operations federal land for mining. The Magma Mine road is a mining road. If Resolution proceeds to mine with the Land Exchange, MSHA rules can allow them to close the road to public traffic. Resolution will also be able to close most of the land near their operations as an active mining area. So the access to the rock climbing on USFS lands in the immediate vicinity of Magma Mine road will be closed for as long as Resolution deems it necessary for safety. And some 60 years down the line, it is not clear that the land will be deemed safe anyway. For all practical measures, rock climbing will be lost in the area impacted by mining whether or not the Land Exchange occurs. Doesn’t it make sense to work to get something now?
Securing Rock Climbing Rights
Rock climbing that occurs on private property is inherently at risk unless an agreement is reached with the land owner. Moreover, rock climbing on public lands is at risk to access issues and potential other users who have higher priority use rights.
Working within its mission to maximize rock climbing in the region, the Queen Creek Coalition obtained an agreement with Resolution Copper that maintains long term climbing access to lands owned by Resolution Copper. Moreover, the License allows rock climbing to continue on private property whether or not there is ever a Land Exchange.
The agreement also anticipates that if other crags in the area which currently are owned by other entities have that ownership transferred to Resolution in the future they will be governed by the License. Further the License provides for additional monies to be provided to help secure access and development of other climbing crags in the region so that the net loss/gain of rock climbing in the region will be positive.
Recent news from Resolution about laying off employees does not materially impact the intent and purpose of the License Agreement. The reduction in next year funding was a corporate decision based on Rio Tinto re-prioritizing its mining operations around the world. Again, the License means that long term security has been obtained to the degree possible. Resolution is still moving forward with its plans to mine.
Resolution has assured the QCC that it will stand behind its agreement with it.
The Split in the Climbing Community
Some rock climbers have adhered to a different perspective and approach to the potential Land Exchange and Mine. The differences between the camps on the importance of the goals of Save Oak Flat versus Most Net Rock Climbing are real. The parties simply disagree on which goal to pursue and the realism of obtaining those goals. QCC has taken meaningful and practical steps consistent with its major focus on securing the most net rock climbing in the region and is the major force for securing that rock climbing for posterity.
Why is the Access Fund continuing to fight the Mine and Land Exchange? This is a complicated matter. In point of fact, the Access Fund encouraged the QCC to strike a deal with Resolution. They were the holders of the Recreational Use License from 2006 to 2011 and had issued a letter supporting an earlier version of the Land Exchange. The AF’s position all along had been to support the wishes of the local climbing community.
How it appears to me is that when QCC reached its deal, the AF felt that the AF coming out against the Land Exchange might enable the AF to obtain an even better deal with little downside given what had been achieved by the QCC.
What are the benefits for climbers of the deal Queen Creek Coalition struck with Resolution Copper?
1. Secured long term climbing rights on Private Land. Many climbers don’t understand property rights, use rights, etc. Whether it’s climbing on private or public lands, unless the climber’s have secured the right to rock climb, the property owner can withdraw their use rights and ban rock climbing. Historic use carries relatively little weight. In Scottsdale, climbers used to climb at the Boulders and Troon Mountain. However, in the case of the Boulders and Troon Mountain as soon as the property owner decided to end climbing, access was gone. In the McDowells we were able to negotiate a deal with the City where basically we kept all of the historic rock climbing, but it took us 10 years and 1,000’s of hours serving on City boards and commissions to gain the relationships, credibility and power to make it happen.
The QCC was able to secure rock climbing rights to private lands currently owned by Resolution Copper. These perfected user rights are codified in a Recreational Use License to be overseen by QCC on behalf of Resolution Copper. The License covers some of the more popular rock climbing areas in the Queen Creek region, namely the Pond and Atlantis. They are the closest to the Phoenix metroplex and easiest to access and now we can continue to climb on them. Many climbers may not realize that powerful segments in Resolution Copper simply wanted to cut their liability by prohibiting rock climbing.
2. Funded protection of long term climbing access on Public Lands. Many climbers may not understand that most of the access to climbing on USFS land and BLM lands in the Queen Creek region was via access roads that are ultimately controlled by Resolution Copper pursuant to their rights under Mining Laws of the United States. Resolution can, and will, call on the land managers to close access roads needed for mining purposes as they move forward, with or without a federal Land Exchange.
Access to Apache Leap, Upper Devils, Lower Devils and Hackberry Creek climbing areas is currently via a road that was built for purposes of mining and likely will be closed when mining activities increase to the extent that safety factors justify such closures.
With the funds to be delivered to QCC it will be able to work with local governments and federal governments to secure access future long term access to these rock climbing areas (within the allocation of limited funding available).
3. Enhanced rock climbing in the Queen Creek region. While it is true that the net amount of “bouldering” available will likely be less than the historic condition, QCC’s plans may well lead to an increase in the amount of secured, long term roped rock climbing. QCC is hoping to be able to secure long term access to the Pond, Atlantis, Upper Devil’s, Lower Devil’s, and Hackberry Creek. It also is hoping to achieve long term access to Apache Leap which has vast amounts of untapped rock climbing opportunities. What is primarily being lost are the bouldering problems in and near Oak Flat, the Mine Area, and Eurodog Valley. With the addition of Tam O’Shanter and development of secured access to rock climbing crags in the region, there will be thousands of routes available for climbing.
Admittedly it is extremely disappointing to lose any rock climbing, but claims that the future picture of rock climbing at Queen Creek if the Mine occurs will result in the single greatest lost of rock climbing ever may be arguably disputable.
4. Created the Opportunity for a Sustainable Economic Future in the Area. Mining, even if on the scale and longevity of the Resolution’s operation, is inherently a boom and bust economic cycle. The QCC’s vision is to create the basis for a recreational greenbelt surrounding the Resolution mining operations. This recreational mecca in central Arizona, created, secured and supported by partnerships and funding among the QCC and its national and local partners, can be the sustainable future for the small mining towns in the area and for the State of Arizona.
5. A World Class Climbing Area. QCC may be able to work with its national, state and local partners to resurrect the Tam O’Shanter State Climbing Park. A short distance south of Queen Creek sits an already developed rock climbing mecca with over 500 rock climbing routes already developed and hundreds more that can be developed. John Sherman found and with friends developed an amazing complex of rock climbing problems. Sitting on a combination of land ownerships it is conceivable that QCC can put together the necessary players to secure long term access roads, trails, trail heads and campgrounds that will make “Tamo” a world class winter season climbing destination.
With the “deal”, QCC can help create these amazing climbing resources. Climbers of tomorrow will be able to keep climbing.
Without the “deal” climbers would have been left with nothing. The same climbing that is being lost would have been lost. Resolution would have closed the doors to rock climbing on its private lands. And no monies would be available to mitigate the losses.