Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON – For three decades, Bill Roe has worked to protect some of southern Arizona’s great places.
He was instrumental in the creation of the state park at Kartchner Caverns, the preserve at Aravaipa Canyon and the national conservation area along a stretch of the San Pedro River, a fragile thread of green that flows through the desert from its headwaters in Mexico northward to its confluence with the Gila River.
“Bill Roe is one of the true champions of conservation” in Arizona, said Pat Graham, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Arizona chapter.
Now the 66-year-old Tucson resident and former lawyer is waging the biggest battle of his environmentalist life: a confrontation over federal land-exchange legislation that would clear the way for a huge new copper mine near Superior, 60 miles east of Phoenix.
At stake are the thousands of jobs and billions of dollars the mine would generate for decades, with an estimated economic and fiscal impact to the state of almost $800 million a year for more than 60 years.
Along with some Indian tribes and other environmentalist groups, Roe opposes the legislation sponsored by Sen. Jon Kyl and backed by the Resolution Copper Mining Co.
The company is a partnership of the two largest mining companies in the world, BHP Billiton of Australia and Rio Tinto of England. It was formed to develop a massive copper deposit discovered a few years ago deep under ground.
The company’s land exchange efforts were stalled by the February indictment of Rep. Rick Renzi of Arizona on charges that he attempted to manipulate the exchange for personal benefit.
The lengthy investigation that preceded the indictment effectively froze a House land-exchange bill.
Kyl proposes to swap 3,025 acres of Forest Service land to the company in return for private parcels around the state totaling 5,539 acres.
At a Senate hearing in July, Kyl said the exchange would “preserve lands that advance the important public objectives of protecting wildlife habitat, cultural resources, the watershed and aesthetic values, while generating economic, recreation and employment opportunities for state and local residents.”
Roe said the deal isn’t good enough.
He hired lobbyists to make his case. Two of them, Tom Ziemba and David Waid, have close ties to Gov. Janet Napolitano.
Roe and his wife, Alice, a member of the du Pont family of chemical industry fame, also have made hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.
Almost all the money has gone to Democratic candidates and organizations at the state and national levels.
Since the beginning of 2007, Roe and his wife have made $243,000 in political contributions, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The figure includes $30,000 to the Arizona Democratic Party and $10,000 to the Competitive Edge PAC, a political action committee controlled by Napolitano.
The Roes also contributed to groups that seek to elect Democrats to federal office. They gave $57,000 to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and $50,500 to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. They gave to presidential candidate Barack Obama and to Democratic candidates in Arizona and other states.
Roe said his political concerns and campaign contributions began well before the land exchange controversy. He acknowledged, though, that the money is useful in the current fight.
“It undoubtedly plays a role in terms of being able to talk to people,” he said.
Meanwhile, at Napolitano’s request, Resolution included Roe in a stakeholders group that is considering the future of the lower San Pedro area.
And the state Democratic Party placed Roe on the presidential ballot, below the name of Obama, as one of its 10 electors at the Electoral College.
Asked about Roe’s political clout in the land-exchange controversy, Napolitano’s spokeswoman, Jeanine L’Ecuyer, said: “Bill is a citizen activist who cares about Arizona. He has never been opposed to the land exchange but like many others recognizes there is one chance to do this right, by getting the bill right.”
Resolution President David Salisbury frets about Roe’s influence, both with the governor and with Congress.
“It appears that Mr. Roe is spending whatever it takes to manipulate the political process,” Salisbury said. “I believe those actions have negatively impacted the progress of the land exchange.”
Resolution has also spent big for political connections, laying out several hundred thousand dollars for two Phoenix-based lobbying firms.
The Gordon C. James firm has close ties to the Bush administration, while longtime Democratic operative Ron Ober boasts on his Web site of ties to Napolitano.
And the political action committee of Kennecott, a division of Rio Tinto, has been a regular donor to members of Arizona’s congressional delegation, including until recently Renzi.
Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter said corporate interests seeking land exchanges typically spend heavily in the political arena. Roe’s resources make him an unusual counterweight, she said.
“Now for once there are some resources on the other side of a land exchange,” she said.
Resolution is particularly concerned about Roe’s influence with Napolitano because a Democratically controlled Congress can be expected to take cues from the Democratic governor on controversial issues in her state.
Three years ago, when Congress was considering an earlier version of the bill, Napolitano was enthusiastic.
“This is a good exchange for Arizona,” she said.
But in a recent letter to Kyl, Napolitano said the bill needed work.
“Particular attention should be paid to the lands that need protection in the San Pedro Basin,” she wrote, hitting the issue at the center of Bill Roe’s concerns.
Roe wants Resolution to expand the exchange package by adding land along the San Pedro near the town of San Manuel.
A migratory corridor for dozens of bird species, the San Pedro sustains a remarkable variety of wildlife because it flows through an area where four major ecological regions converge: the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Madre Occidental,
“It is an incredibly important area,” Roe said.
The land exchange controversy is a classic story in a state that once grew with its copper mines and now depends heavily on the draw of its wild places.
The mine would give an economic jolt to Superior, where the Magma mine was the major economic engine from the early 1900s until it closed in 1982. It reopened in 1990, only to shut down six years later.
The town sagged until a few years ago when word began to spread about the discovery of the ore deposit at depths 4,500 to 7,000 feet down.
“Doggone it, there’s a huge ore body up there, and somebody’s going to mine it eventually,” said Superior Mayor Michael Hing. “We’re in bad shape in this town, and this mine is just what we need.”
Hing, whose Chinese grandfather sold groceries to miners here, makes no effort to hide his resentment of Roe.
“That guy has a lot of influence and he’s influenced the governor to the point of stalling this whole thing,” he said.
Roe insists that he is not trying to stop the mine and only wants to make the land exchange a better deal for Arizona.
“We’ve made it clear that we know the company is investing a lot of money, that it’s entitled to a really good return on its investment,” he said. “But I’m convinced that the value of that mine is far greater than what they have put in that bill.”
Roe’s major goal is to have Resolution include another parcel of land along the San Pedro, next to the old mining town of San Manuel.
He said the river will die unless that land, which Pima County has approved as the site for thousands of homes, is withdrawn from development.
“The health of that entire lower stretch of that river is dependent on what happens to that land and its water rights,” he said.
Roe said there’s a straightforward solution, made possible by the fact that the land is owned by BHP-Billiton, the British mining giant that owns 45 percent of Resolution.
But that solution is not as simple as it sounds, Salisbury said, because BHB Billiton is not interested in selling the land to Resolution for use in the land exchange.
As important as the San Pedro is to Roe, his concerns about the land exchange legislation don’t stop there. He said more steps would be necessary to ensure that the land exchange is fair to the public.
He said the appraisal process needs improvement. And he suggested, cryptically, that his list doesn’t stop there.
“We don’t have clarity on what he wants,” said a frustrated Salisbury. “He has said publicly that his objective is to improve the legislation, but we’re not sure what he means, what the specifics are.”
Roe refused to be drawn out. “Why should I give up bargaining points in a discussion with you or anyone else?” he asked a reporter.
He insisted that he wants to be a conscientious citizen and environmentalist, not an obstructionist.
Still, he’s in no hurry to clear up the confusion.
He said might have an even stronger hand with a strong Democratic showing in November.
“My reaction now is let’s see what the results of the election are,” he said. “If (the Republicans) have a favorable election return, I’m not going to get one square inch more than is in that bill.”