I was snowshoeing around the east side of the San Francisco Peaks the other day filling in some gaps in my exploration project when I stepped out of the forest into the blinding white moonscape of the former White Vulcan pumice mine. I'd known the site was there for a long time but had been avoiding it because I knew it would piss me off. The above picture was taken from the edge of it looking across one end of the expanse towards the Peaks. It's actually much, much larger than it appears in the photograph. The mine scar is nearly three quarters of a mile long and a quarter mile wide, is almost entirely treeless, and can be seen for many miles around. If you wore stonewashed denim jeans back in the 1980s then there's a chance the grit that was in the pockets before you washed them the first time came from here.
There is a bit of a lesson to be learned in how capitalism works from White Vulcan. According to what I read in the local rag, White Vulcan was operated for many years by an Arizona company that had claims on the land using antiquated 1872 mining laws. The pumice mined from the site was used in all sorts of things like landscaping materials, barbecue grills, roads, and the aforementioned stonewashed jeans. Over the years the company pulled some $30 million dollars out of the site before pumice prices crashed after the garment industry developed a cheaper way of stonewashing fabrics.
In 2001 a long-running series of administrative court battles between the company and the Forest Service over resource and archaeological site damage ended and the mine was closed, with Congress arranging for the government to buy out the company's mining rights with a million dollars of public money. The open pit was subsequently filled in and now the Forest Service has begun replanting ponderosa trees in a couple of areas within the mine scar.
So, basically it's the same story as has played out all over where private mining occurs on public land: a private company takes all the profits from a site and then the public (meaning you and me through our tax dollars) pays to clean up the mess afterwards.
My favorite quote about White Vulcan comes from a letter Yavapai-Apache Nation Chairman Vincent Randall wrote to the Forest Service back in 1999:
"Further destruction of the countryside in this sacred area so the fashion-conscious can wear pants which make them appear to have spent time outside is, to us, ludicrous."
Amen, brother. Amen.
While I was crossing the scar I checked out some of the baby pine seedlings the FS had planted and most looked to be surviving, but they'll need to plant a whole lot more before the site will resemble a forest again. With government budget reductions and austerity measures coming I suspect that the money will dry up and there won't be much left for more seedlings in future years. The good news is that they may not have to replant the whole thing: As I stood there at the edge of the expanse I noticed that the wind was blowing ponderosa seeds from the surrounding forest across the surface of the snow down into the mine.
There is another mine site almost as large as White Vulcan about a mile northwest nestled against the base of Sugarloaf Mountain. That one is still operating and is, I suspect, much more damaging to the Peaks as it is eating into the foundation of the mountain itself. In the future that side of Sugarloaf will probably collapse and erode down into it. I have a few pictures of that site, too, and it's a travesty to look at, but that's grist for another post.