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PRESCOTT, Ariz. July 2, 2020 — The Prescott National Forest today withdrew its decision to proceed with a controversial mine, the River Bend Placer Mine project, on the Hassayampa River. The withdrawal comes after the Center for Biological Diversity delivered a forceful objection to the project’s impacts on the globally imperiled Phillip’s agave (Agave phillipsiana), a rare plant domesticated by Native Americans centuries ago and farmed by them on the site of the mine between 500 and 1,000 years ago.
“This announcement from the Prescott National Forest is a huge win for rare species and for irreplaceable cultural sites that are part of Native American heritage,” said Joe Trudeau, the Center’s Southwest conservation advocate. “We should celebrate the agency hitting the brakes on this awful project.”
This is the second time the project decision has been withdrawn in recent months following public concerns for wildlife, rare plants, and cultural resources. In February the Forest Service set aside its previous decision, following public concern about the project’s impacts on the environment. Today the Forest Service withdrew the latest decision owning to “contentions” that the agency “would like to consider further before making a decision on this project.”
The Center’s June 1 objection identified three key issues where the project violated the National Environmental Policy Act. In addition to the impacts on Phillips agave, the project decision failed to ensure that mitigation measures were enough to avoid significant impacts to the environment, and the decision failed to account for the cumulative of multiple similar projects on the Hassayampa River.
Since the Center filed its objection it has learned that the mine owner, Pushpak Bullions Private Limited, is based in Mumbai, India. In addition, the Center discovered that the Forest Service intentionally sidestepped National Historic Preservation Act requirements for consultation with affected Native American tribes.
“It’s astonishing that the Forest Service continues to allow foreign companies to plunder Native American cultural sites on our public lands,” said Trudeau. “The fight to stop this mine isn’t over, but these rare plants and their unique history are spared for the time being.”
The Prescott National Forest recently allowed the expiration of a 20-year mineral withdrawal on the Hassayampa River and other sites in the forest. Mining companies rapidly took advantage of the lapsed protections and have filed more than 20 new placer mining claims on the Hassayampa River and its primary tributary, Groom Creek. In addition, the expired withdrawals have now exposed five summer camps and the Lynx Creek and Granite Basin Recreation Areas to mineral development.
The Hassayampa River is home to the federally protected Mexican spotted owl, as well as sensitive species like the lowland leopard frog, desert sucker, northern goshawk, common black hawk and western red bat.
The River Bend project, in combination with the dramatic expansion of mining claims and other proposed mining plans also under Forest Service review, make the Hassayampa one of the most threatened rivers in Arizona.