A few miles past Superior on U.S. 60 is a nature-lover’s paradise. Oak Flat Campground is surrounded by natural beauty. Queen Creek Canyon and the breathtaking cliffs of Apache Leap are nearby.
Enormous rocks, jagged cliffs and riparian enclaves have made this area a stomping ground for hikers, birders, four-wheelers and rock climbers.
“It’s a climbing paradise,” says Stephen Dison of Mesa. “You could live there for years and never climb everything.”
Sandy Graham has childhood memories of Easter picnics and camping under the stars at Oak Flat.
“We went up there and had picnics, hiked and camped,” says Graham, who has spent most of her 52 years in Superior. “You had to go early to get a camping spot for Easter. We had a ball up there.”
But about 7,500 feet below ground lies one of the largest copper deposits in North America. Oak Flat, which is in the Tonto National Forest, is at the center of a congressional land swap and will likely be turned over to Resolution Copper Co. for mining. The plan calls for the company to receive about 3,000 acres of U.S. Forest Service land in exchange for about 5,000 acres of land it owns in Gila County, which will become a state park for climbing.
Graham and other longtime residents of Superior find themselves willing to sacrifice Oak Flat for a shot at an economic future. Opening the mine will bring 300 long-term jobs to Superior, according to mine officials.
Climbers aren’t as willing to let it go, but after two years of opposing the swap, they’ve reluctantly given in.
“It became a lost cause,” says Paul Dief, president of Friends of Queen Creek, a group created to fight the land swap. “We finally got to a point where everyone was for it. That’s disappointing. Next thing you know, they’re going to want to close the Grand Canyon and use it as a landfill.”
TEARS OF GLASS
The history of Oak Flat goes back 14 million years, when a below-ground volcano burst beneath the surface, spewing rocks everywhere for three days, says Marty Karabin, a climber and author of “The Rock Jock’s Guide to Queen Creek Canyon” (Falcon Publishing, 2002). Years of erosion smoothed the surface of the rocks.
Years before mines opened and climbers discovered those smooth rocks, Apache and other American Indian tribes called this area home. This is where “Apache tears,” small fragments of obsidian or volcanic glass, are found: The story goes that U.S. cavalry cornered a group of Apaches on a bluff overlooking Superior and rather than surrender, the Apaches jumped to their deaths. Upon hearing this, the Apache women wept tears of stone. (That bluff became Apache Leap.)
In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower set Oak Flat aside for recreational use as part of the Tonto National Forest. Since then Oak Flat has been a popular spot for camping, hiking, offroading, birding and canyoneering. Opponents of the land swap point out that giving Oak Flat to the mining company violates the spirit of Eisenhower’s executive order; in an area inundated with copper deposits, they say, surely Eisenhower and others suspected there might be copper beneath it but chose to set it aside.
A little over two years ago Resolution Copper expressed interest in mining the copper beneath Oak Flat. Rather than go through the Forest Service, which has rejected previous requests to mine the area, the company chose to go the congressional route. Federal lawmakers are working on legislation that, if approved, will give the company Oak Flat and surrounding areas in exchange for land near Hayden that would become a state climbing park (see map).
In the meantime, the climbers have negotiated a lease agreement with the company that gives them limited access if the land swap goes through.
“We’re not officially opposed to the swap,” says Curt Shannon, a climber from Gilbert and a member of the Friends of Queen Creek. “There’s no doubt we’re better off if the land exchange doesn’t go through. I guess you could say we’ve hedged our bets.”
TOWN ON THE BRINK
Sandy Graham leans over the counter of her new store, jars full of “Apache tears” at her elbow.
“I knew this town would never die,” says Graham, who moved back to Superior five years ago.
Superior was a prosperous place in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Magma Mine was running and there were plenty of jobs for the town’s 7,500 residents.
Graham and her family moved from their native Tennessee because Graham’s sister, Linda, had respiratory problems. After high school Graham was one of the few women who worked in the mine.
“I was a laborer,” she says with traces of Tennessee in her voice. “I thought I was in hell when I walked down there. It was like a flame hit me in the face.”
The Magma Mine closed in 1987, and Superior, like so many former mining towns in Arizona, went into decline. Half the population left for better opportunities, and social problems associated with unemployment — crime and drug use — became commonplace.
There’s no doubt Superior needs some kind of economic boost. Town officials such as Councilman Lynn Heglie talk of Superior as the next Jerome or Bisbee. But most of the buildings in downtown Superior aren’t just empty, they’re ready to fall over.
“It hurts you to see a lot of these buildings,” says Graham, who left Superior for a few years. “Some of them need to be pulled down.”
Graham’s business and others that have recently opened have more to do with the new mine than visions of Superior as an artists colony.
“I’m really glad the mine is opening up,” says Graham. “That’s the reason I opened up here. . . . Superior has been depressed since the mine closed in the ‘80s. (The mine) is tremendous for the whole city.”
Graham’s Old Highway 60 Trading Post is right off the highway. You really can’t miss it — the building is painted a vivid yellow. Inside, Graham sells Old West memorabilia and antiques to winter visitors and weekend warriors on their way to Oak Flat.
Older residents of Superior haven’t been as enthusiastic about the swap.
“Other people are talking about it a little bit,” says Heglie, who has never camped at Oak Flat and says he has no personal attachment to it. “For them, it’s kind of like losing an old friend.”
Stephen Dison moved to Arizona for the rocks.
“The plan when I came here was, basically, to climb as much as I can,” says the 27-year-old New Mexico native, who now lives in Mesa.
Before unpacking his bags, Dison headed to REI and began scouring the guidebooks for prime climbing spots.
“One of the guys (in the store) mentioned Oak Flat,” says Dison. “I drove out that day. It was just amazing to me.”
Oak Flat has been a climber’s paradise for about 20 years, a secret shared by a few climbers until the Phoenix Bouldering Contest was held there in 1989. About 2,000 people came out to watch 500 climbers compete, and the scenery wasn’t lost on any of them.
“There’s just literally hundreds of climbs of all abilities out there,” says Dief. “It’s fantastic climbing.”
Climbing is essentially about problem solving: Where do you place your arms and legs to scale a cliff wall that is 50 feet high, or get around a 12-foot boulder? Each boulder presents a problem or a physical puzzle, and there about 2,000 such problems in Oak Flat.
“You’ll go back there and you’ll try a boulder problem and you’ll be successful or you’ll come back month after month,” says Dison. “It’s not like riding your bike around the neighborhood. You really have to go back and dedicate yourself to finishing the problem.”
Climbers point out that the proposed block cave mine would ruin the area indefinitely and that the land swap sets a bad precedent, no matter how generous the company might be with Superior.
“Even if the land never falls, it’s considered off-limits forever,” says Karabin. “They’re taking football fields (of dirt) out from the ground.”
Dison was angry when he learned of the proposed land swap.
“I moved here to climb, and that’s the best climbing area anywhere close to Phoenix,” says Dison. “It made me pretty angry that there would be any possibility that the government would give away this public recreation area to a foreign-owned company.” Resolution Copper is a subsidiary of Rio Tinto Co. of Britain and Australia.
To assuage the climbers, Resolution Copper proposed to swap land near Mount Tam O’Shanter for a state climbing park. The company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to scout a new climbing location and will spend about $500,000 to build an access road.
The company says it has gone out of its way to make everyone involved happy, and points out that it has allowed the climbers to scale rocks on property it owns nearby for years.
“Sometimes you have to give a little to get a lot,” says Tom Glass, founder of Western Land Group, a Denverbased public lands consulting group that assisted Resolution Copper with the land swap.
The state park won’t happen unless the land swap is approved by Congress. Until then, climbers will have access to certain areas owned by the mining company under a five-year access agreement negotiated with the company by the Access Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Colorado that works to preserve climbing areas. Oak Flat will remain open for at least five years unless the company decides it’s a safety hazard.
Climbers point out that while they’re pleased with the idea of a state rock climbing park, they’ll now have to drive farther to get to it and pay a user fee.
“It’s better than nothing, but it certainly isn’t an ideal solution,” says Dief. “You cannot go out and re-create a 50-foot spire.”