SONOITA, Ariz. (AP) — Scenic State Highway 83 gently curves through southeastern Arizona's wine country, past waves of blond grass dotted with orange-tipped ocotillo plants before the dark Santa Rita Mountains loom into view.
The Milepost 44 pullout offers a panorama of the range in the Coronado National Forest where a Canadian firm wants to carve out a massive copper mine near Tucson. The $1.9 billion Rosemont Mine, at a half-mile deep and a mile wide, would sprawl across federal, state and private land, leaving a waste pile the height of skyscraper.
Native American tribes and environmental groups have sued to stop Hudbay Minerals Inc. of Toronto, arguing its mine could desecrate sacred, ancestral lands and dry up wells and waterways while ravaging habitat for endangered jaguar and other species. Last week, they asked a federal judge to prevent the project from proceeding until the lawsuits are decided.
"I pray to our Creator every morning that things will work out," said Austin Nunez, chairman of the Tohono O'odham's San Xavier District, a piece of tribal land just south of Tucson. "Our ancestors' remains are there, along with archaeological sites, including a ball court. We cannot risk any further harm to our ancestral heritage."
The Tucson and state chambers of commerce are Rosemont cheerleaders, noting the project will immediately create 500 jobs and pour $16 billion into the local economy over 20 years.
The fight comes amid a larger battle across the West over using public lands for mining.
The Trump administration in late 2017 slashed about 85% of Utah's Bear Ears National Monument to allow for mining claims. New Mexico tribal leaders have pressured U.S. officials to ban oil and gas exploration near the remnants of an ancient Pueblo civilization at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. And conservationists fret over plans to reopen a gold mine in California's Castle Mountains National Monument, home to ancient rock art and a Joshua tree forest.
"You could go to virtually every state and find a push by big corporations to grab resources before it's too late," said Richard White, a historian of the American West at Stanford University. "It's a resurrection of these extractive industries that were so much a part of the Old West."
Arizona produces about two-thirds of U.S. copper for wiring and other electronics, generating about $5.38 billion in 2017, according to the Arizona Mining Association.