Andy Stone: A Stone’s Throw
August 27, 2008
Weve spent this week on a hidden ranch in a remote corner of New Mexico.As I write this, Im looking out the window at serried ridges, covered in pion pine, stretching off to the horizon. A magnificent butte dominates the middle distance. Further off, a line of jagged mountains is etched against the sky.And throughout this entire view, stretching for many miles, there is virtually no sign of human impact except for this old homestead ranch.To my right, across a meadow, an old windmill towers above the barn, beside the original ranch house. This is no longer a working ranch, but horses still graze in the fields and amble up to the barn every day at feeding time.Wild turkeys occasionally parade across the meadow below the main house. Javalinas aggressive, dangerous wild pigs roam one hillside and have chased unwary hikers. Mountain lions lurk in the deep woods that stretch off in all directions. Rattlesnakes thrive in the long grass and bask in the sun.This is, in short, a wild and magical place.Its about 20 miles to town, most of the way on empty highways. And the last few miles from the highway to the ranch are rocky dirt road. Most of the time you dont need four-wheel drive to get here, but often enough you want it.This is, in short, a remote and distant place.The sun is setting now and its slanting rays are lighting that distant butte. Hummingbirds swarm the feeders outside the window. Roses overflow the garden that lines the patio.In a back hallway there is a locked room with half a dozen rifles. In bedrooms there are drawers with loaded pistols.Remote, beautiful, magical and wild.This is the American West.And so, when you drive that rocky dirt road to the highway and make the turn toward town, you are on the edge of a vast open-pit mine.As you travel the highway, the vista of mountains and buttes disappears behind enormous mounds of crushed rock, the mines discards. Those piles are huge and terraced, a hundred or more feet high, with roads leading to the top that are busy with monstrous trucks carrying tons and tons of rock to add to the waste dump.The mine operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the man-made mesas line the roads for miles in all directions.Theres a pull-out on the highway officially labeled as a view point for the mine itself. It counts as a tourist stop and I guess it should.Spanish settlers began mining here more than 200 years ago. Now, two centuries later, the mine pit is over a mile wide and nearing half a mile deep.Looking down from the view point, it is almost impossible to grasp the scale of this this hole in the ground. And then you spot one of those monstrous trucks far below and you realize how far away it must be to look so small.And of course those piles of crushed rock are so huge; more than 95 percent of the rock that is dug out of the ground is left behind. The ore is very low grade less than one percent valuable mineral. The rock is crushed on-site and processed to bring the mineral content up to 25 percent and the rest is left behind in those ever-growing roadside mesas.Here on the ranch, although the mine and its dumps are far out of sight, you can still sometimes hear the distant roar of explosions from the bottom of the pit.So you cant see any sign of human impact from here, but you can hear it.I cant say Im happy that the mine is there, but its difficult to seriously object to its presence. It was, after all, here first. It provides jobs and financial resources for this generally poor region. And, though it is owned by a vast impersonal multi-national conglomerate (at one point it was partly owned by a Japanese corporation), it produces a vitally important mineral for our country and the world.Of course, an open-pit mine is a difficult neighbor.Back in the 1950s, it swallowed a small town. Originally settled by miners, the town had to go as the mine expanded. People who were born there refer to themselves as Space Babies, since the town they were born in is now empty space, hovering half a mile above the bottom of the pit.But here on the ranch, the real impact of the mine is not the noise or the piles of crushed rock along the highway.Remote and distant, wild and magical, this ranch is surrounded almost completely by government land. National forest borders much of the ranch. BLM land borders most of the rest. One might have thought it was protected.But national forest has turned out not to be much protection.As we have learned in western Colorado, mineral rights on government land even on national forest are a resource that can be harvested.The mining company, it seems, owns the mineral rights under national forest land adjoining the ranch land thats just a few yards from the original ranch house, just two minutes walk from the room where I now sit.Will they mine that land? The geology and the economy will determine that. If the mineral is there, sooner or later it will probably be mined. If the price is right.But that, in the end, is the paradox of the American West.So much of this region is wild and magical, remote and beautiful. And so much of it is a potential source of natural resources, mineral wealth.We make our homes here. We build our lives here. But we do not own it and we cannot control it.We hold it in trust for our nation and for the future.We can only appreciate it and respect it honor it and protect it against careless greed.In the long run, what is needed cannot be hoarded. But in the short run, it also must not be squandered.
Andy Stone is a former editor of The Aspen Times. His e-mail address is email@example.com.