PRESCOTT — Officials last week marked the completion of a long-awaited federal land exchange that will allow for the expansion of an eastern Pinal County copper mine while adding to wilderness in three Arizona counties.
The land exchange involving nearly 18,000 acres, including more than 600 acres near Casa Grande, was 26 years in the making, officials said.
At the Yavapai County Courthouse Friday, Secretary of the Interior David L. Bernhardt was joined by U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, Bureau of Land Management Arizona Director Ray Suazo and other public and private representatives to announce the transfer of lands between the BLM and the private company ASARCO through the Ray Land Exchange. This was the final step in the process that will also add riparian habitat and established wilderness areas in Pinal, Gila and Mohave counties.
“This action allows for the hundreds of mining jobs to continue to produce American-made minerals — reducing our dependence on foreign producers — while also enhancing recreational and hunting access on public lands in the West,” Bernhardt said in a statement.
Suazo said the land exchange balances the public’s need for hunting and recreation access with the mining company’s need to continue responsible mineral development and Arizona’s need for continued economic viability.
“This administrative land exchange, which began 26 years ago, is a prime example of an equitable exchange that provides many benefits to the public,” said ASARCO Vice President and CFO Oscar Gonzalez Barron in a press release.
Even though many environmentalists opposed the land exchange, citing the Ray Mine’s poor environmental record in the past, officials said the “majority of input received during the comment period strongly supported this land exchange.”
The BLM issued two patents transferring 9,339 acres of public land adjacent to ASARCO’s Ray Mine Complex and Copper Butte properties for mine expansion. This includes 7,196 acres of full estate and 2,143 acres of subsurface mineral estate, the surface of which is already owned by ASARCO.
In exchange, the BLM acquired 7,298 acres of ASARCO-owned land in Pinal and Mohave counties through a general land deed, consolidating checkerboard land ownership in those areas, allowing better management of wildlife migration corridors and improving access to existing public lands for hunting and other family recreation.
Federal law requires that the lands exchanged be equal in value, with no more than a 25% cash equalization payment included. In addition, ASARCO spent over $15 million to finalize the land exchange, $12 million of which was directed to the BLM and BLM-required third-party contractors.
Ultimately, it took 26 years to complete the Ray Land Exchange. During that time, litigation from environmental groups and a 10-year National Environmental Policy Act process delayed the exchange.
The Trump administration has sought to streamline NEPA reviews. President Donald Trump issued an executive order “establishing Discipline and Accountability in the Environmental Review and Permitting Process for Infrastructure Projects.”
The order requires that environmental impact statement documents be completed in one year and in less than 150 pages with exceptions for those that are unusually complex or in coordination with other federal agencies.
A Notice of Decision was published on Nov. 4 initiating a 45-day protest period for the land exchange. The BLM received and resolved three protests. The documents, maps and other information about the approved land exchange are available online at https://go.usa.gov/xEnKR.
Offered (private) lands parcel descriptions
Gila River at Cochran parcel
- 320 acres
- miles southwest of the White Canyon Wilderness on the Gila River
- Contains a segment of the Gila River Riparian Management Area
- 146 acres of riparian habitat suitable for southwestern willow flycatcher and western yellow-billed cuckoo
- BLM special status species known or likely to occur
- Important wintering and breeding bird habitat
Knisely Ranch parcels
- 160 acres
- Three in-holding parcels within the Mount Tipton Wilderness
- Great Basin conifer woodland, interior chaparral, and Mohave desert scrub
- Pine Canyon provides mesquite- and catclaw-dominated xeroriparian habitat
McCracken Mountain parcels
- 6,384 acres
- 10 parcels within the McCracken Desert Tortoise Habitat ACEC
- High-quality xeroriparian habitat for a variety of wildlife species
- BLM special status species known or likely to occur
- Consolidates checkerboard lands, limiting future development in desert tortoise habitat
Sacramento Valley parcel
- 120 acres
- Adjacent to Warm Springs Wilderness and near Mount Nutt Wilderness
- Mohave desert scrub biotic community
- Adjacent to high-value bighorn sheep habitat in Black Mountains; within the Black Mountains Herd Management Area
- Xeroriparian vegetation includes ironwood, catclaw, foothill palo verde and jojoba
- 320 acres
- Two of three parcels are located on the Big Sandy River
- Big Sandy parcels provide high-quality riparian habitat for a wide variety of wildlife species, including potentially suitable habitat for southwestern willow flycatcher
- BLM special status species known or likely to occur (desert tortoise, chuckwalla, lowland leopard frog, and bat species)
- Area subject to Wild and Scenic River study
Selected (public) lands parcel descriptions
The existing conditions and foreseeable uses for the selected lands vary by parcel. Conditions range from parcels containing existing mining, parcels adjacent to mining, and parcels with no current mining activity. Foreseeable uses for the selected lands include expansion of open pit operations, haul roads, leach and rock deposition areas, access roads, storm water facilities and administrative facilities. Some parcels will be used as buffer areas and contain limited or no mining activity.
Ray Mine parcels
- 6,325 acres
- 18 parcels surrounding the Ray open pit copper mine
Copper Butte parcels
- 3,182 acres
- Five parcels located 2 miles west of the Ray Mine
- 832 acres
- Five parcels near the Hayden operations
Casa Grande parcels
- 637 acres
- Three parcels near Casa Grande
- Exchange for mineral estate only; the surface estate of these parcels is no longer owned by ASARCO
Elim Mining announced earlier this month that it has purchased an additional 160 acres south of the mine tailing area for the old Sacaton Unit mine, now known as Cactus Mine, for exploration.
The company purchased the property for $1.2 million.