County Supervisors Rudy Molera, Manuel Ruiz and Bruce Bracker listen to speakers at one of the three special sessions held this past month. Photo by Marion Vendituoli

Emotions run high both for and against the Hermosa Project in the Patagonia Mountains and the recent unanimous decision by the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors to accept 134 acres of land from Arizona Mining Inc. threw more fuel on the fire of this debate. Many residents of Eastern Santa Cruz County have been left feeling frustrated by the process by which the board came to this decision, and many questions remain unanswered.

Why wasn’t this process more transparent? Why was the public not engaged earlier in the process? South32, the parent company of Arizona Mining Inc., states that it has engaged the public through open houses, community meeting etc. Yes, there were meetings showing the proposed road, but existence of an agreement with the county to donate land for a park while maintaining the right to construct an industrial road wasn’t made public until early 2022. County Manager Jennifer St. John stated in an interview with the Patagonia Regional Times that she received a draft of the agreement between Arizona Mining and the county for the land donation in July 2021 but did not look at it until November or early December. 

The Board of Supervisors’ meeting agenda for early January caused an uproar when residents read a misleading description of the land donation. Subsequently the agenda item was dropped. At that time, this newspaper requested a copy of the draft agreement, which the county and Arizona Mining both refused to release. The PRT and the public were finally allowed to see the 26-page document two months later, on March 29, just hours before the first of two study sessions on the land donation. If nothing else, this timing gave the appearance of the county discouraging public participation in the process. 

Bruce Bracker, the Supervisor who represents eastern Santa Cruz County, said in an interview that “I never saw what we were working on until just before it was released to the public.” Incredibly, he, and presumably the other two Supervisors, Manuel Ruiz and Rudy Molera, never saw the document until March 29, but felt comfortable enough to sign it after two public study sessions, where the vast majority of speakers identified many unanswered concerns and implored the Supervisors to take the time to fully assess the benefits and risks of the agreement to the citizens of Santa Cruz County. 

When asked if he had visited the site for the proposed park, Bracker said he had not. He has, however, toured the Hermosa Project mine site twice. When asked if he had accepted the Sky Islands Tourist Association’s invitation to meet with local businesses and hear their concerns, he replied “No.” “I met with local business owners casually,” he said. 

Supervisors Manuel Ruiz and Rudy Molera did not even bother to respond to questions posed by the PRT in a recent email. Based on their comments at the two study sessions, both Supervisors appeared to have little knowledge of the economic base of the communities on the eastern side of the county. 

The Supervisors voted on the land agreement only 15 days after first receiving the agreement and one week before a previously scheduled presentation of a study by the University of Arizona on the importance of the nature-based restorative economy in Santa Cruz County. What was their hurry? 

Why did the Supervisors not conduct a survey of residents? Why were there no open houses held in Patagonia or Sonoita, areas that will bear the impacts from the mine’s proposed route? Why did the Supervisors never tour the land they voted to accept? 

What changes were made to the draft between March 30 and April 13? According to Bracker, two changes in the document occurred between the first public hearing and the vote by the Supervisors to sign the agreement. One was the addition of language about dark sky lighting and the other change was a widening in the easement for the industrial road. None of the comments offered by the speakers at the two study sessions and public comments before the vote were incorporated into the agreement.

Why did South32 want to give this land to the County? The PRT received this statement from the mining company: “The conveyance of 134 acres of land from South32 to the County meets our mutual objectives of maintaining park land for conservation and open space purposes.” Or could it be that South 32 wants to use the agreement with the county to reassure investors that the project is moving forward with local support? 

When asked what the benefit to South32 was in donating the land to the county, Bracker said, “I don’t understand why they went to all this trouble. Nothing can affect their road. They believe they are getting something. It doesn’t make any sense to me. But if that means we aren’t going to get any more development on that property, I’ll take the land.” 

When asked why he thought that this land with an industrial road bisecting it had any value as a park, he answered, “We don’t even know what kind of park this is going to be,”- another unanswered question.

Citizen engagement needs to take place at the front end of discussions on critical issues such as this. Engagement should never be an afterthought or merely a ‘check-the-box’ under open meeting laws. Questions should be sought and respected and answers delivered. 

Perhaps if the Supervisors had been more diligent, more deliberate, put in more time and effort, listened to the stakeholders, and asked tougher questions before signing an agreement to accept land they have never laid eyes on, we might have seen a different outcome. 

We are facing many more issues and important decisions about the Hermosa Project. Perhaps this can be a wake-up for the Supervisors to implement a better process and a fairer perspective that includes input from all citizens of the area being impacted.