A large deposit of rare, brilliant white marble sits on the north slope of the Dragoon Mountains near the small town of Dragoon, between Benson and Willcox (see location map at bottom of post). This deposit, with marble comparable to the famous Carrara marble from Italy, was mined from 1909 to 1965 and its products were used in many office buildings and homes in Arizona and California. The deposit lies within the Escabrosa formation which, when metamorphosed by an intrusive, can become very finely crystalline marble, and the Dragoon deposit is one of the best.
In 1998, Alpha Calcit Fullstoff, an international producer of ground calcium carbonate, through its American subsidiary Alpha Calcit Arizona, acquired the unpatented mining claims on the property. Pilot testing, using proprietary optical scanning technology showed that the marble was suitable for premium quality, high brightness coatings and fillers used in the production of fine white paper.
Testing continued and by 2002 the Coronado National Forest approved a Plan of Operations and a Notice of Intent (NOI) to file an environmental impact statement.
At a scoping meeting, an inexperienced Forest Service geologist failed to consider the color, physical and chemical properties of the marble that would allow production of ground calcium carbonate products. That geologist concluded that the marble deposit may not be locatable (acquired by staking claims) under the Mining Law. That conclusion resulted in a campaign by environmental radicals which caused the Forest Service to cancel the Plan of Operations.
However, following metallurgical testing at the North Carolina State University Minerals lab, which showed that the marble did indeed have special qualities, the Forest Service decided that the quarry could be operated under regulations for locatable minerals and allowed exploration and testing to continue.
During this time, Coronado National Forest was engaged in the now infamous RARE II phase of the Roadless Area Review and Evaluation program. This was a program, prompted by the Wilderness Act of 1964, to assess areas of National Forest for inclusion in wilderness areas.
The criteria for inclusion in an official roadless area include:
1. The area had to have “Natural appearing landscapes with high scenic quality.”
2. The minimum size for consideration is 5,000 contiguous acres.
3. The roadless area had to be… roadless.
In spite of these criteria, the Forest Service created the 1,164 acre, Upper Dragoon Roadless Area which contains the mine and its road.
The road into the quarry (see photo above) predates Arizona statehood. The road, originally called Dragoon Marble Quarry Road, was renamed Lizard Lane and became a dedicated county road in 1924 and is listed as Forest Service road 689 on forest maps. Notice on the photo above that there is another road going up the canyon to the left of the quarry.
Internal Forest Service memos, obtained by Alpha Calcit from an FOIA action, show Forest Service personnel writing, “The marble quarry is a drastically disturbed site that is, all soil and vegetation has been removed over an area of approximately 14 acres. The entire area is surfaced by fractured rock. This type of disturbance is not consistent with roadless area characteristics.”
A 2004 Forest Service memo states, “At the time of authorization, the site was not in a designated roadless area. The area was inadvertently included when the map was created that displayed designated roadless areas.” If it was a mistake, it is an amazing coincidence because the boundaries of the roadless area look like they were designed to target the marble quarry.
So, the Upper Dragoon Roadless Area officially exists, blocking development of the marble mine even though it fails on establishment criteria and the Forest Service claims it was created by mistake. That “mistake” remains uncorrected. The Forest Service finally approved a new Plan of Operations in 2006, but because the property lies within an official roadless area, a very strict and expensive environmental impact (EIS) statement is required. The Forest Service says that mining will “substantially alter the undeveloped character” of the roadless area, contradicting their own memo.
Alpha Calcit estimates the EIS would cost nearly $700,000 plus $400,000 for Forest Service administration, all for a 41-acre property. Such costs would kill the project.
I attempted to get the Forest Service’s side of the story. The first two calls to the Tucson office resulted in transfers to the twilight zone. On the third attempt, I spoke to the information officer, who could provide no relevant information, but promised to find some and get back to me. I’m still waiting.
The bogged-down bureaucracy is killing jobs, capital expenditures, and tax revenue for local school districts, Cochise County, and the state of Arizona. That’s your taxpayer dollars at work.
It is time that the Forest Service correct its mistake and release the area for development.
I note that the State of Wyoming and the Colorado Mining Association have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate the federal government’s Roadless Area Conservation Rule. The petitioners argue the U.S. Forest Service exceeded its authority in enacting the Roadless Rule by exercising power reserved solely for Congress. The roadless areas are de facto wilderness. The 1964 Wilderness Act says Congress alone designates wilderness areas.
For more examples of Forest Service bureaucratic stupidity see:
The Fish & Wildlife Service also has questionable programs: