Jaguar, © David Stein

Court ruling makes things look brighter in the Mountain Empire

This week we got great news for wildlife in the Mountain Empire in southern Arizona. The federal district court in Tucson put the brakes on a damaging exploratory drilling project in the Coronado National Forest near the town of Patagonia. The Mountain Empire region is a special part of the United States, fostering some of the greatest biodiversity in the country! We have been fighting hard to keep the “Sunnyside” project from moving forward. This project would have destructive and lasting impacts on imperiled and threatened species like the jaguar, Mexican spotted owl, ocelot, lesser long-nosed bat and yellow-billed cuckoo, along with local residents in Patagonia.Mexican spotted owl, ©Aaron Maizlish

Earlier this month Defenders and our partners at the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance (PARA) stood up in court to defend the Mountain Empire region. Yesterday the judge on the case issued a ruling against the U.S. Forest Service for approving Sunnyside! Now the project cannot continue to move forward without the proper review of  its environmental impacts.

Back in December, the Sunnyside project was given the green light, but was put on pause when U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the western yellow-billed cuckoo as a federally threatened species. The Forest Service temporarily withdrew approval until it completed consultation with the FWS to determine whether the project would significantly affect the cuckoo. After completing the consultation and concluding that there would be no significant effects, the Forest Service again green-lighted the project in April, 2015, giving Regal Resources (the mining company in charge of the project) approval to run its drill rigs for at least five months in sensitive endangered species’ habitat.

 

Now, it seems pretty obvious that loud mineral drilling operations and construction occurring 24 hours a day, seven days a week (using artificial lighting at night) for at least five months, with total project operations and reclamation lasting up to three years, would have a significant impact on anyone or anything living nearby. So it was surprising to see the project was approved not once, but twice.

This short-sightedness didn’t stop our talented team of legal experts who knew that the approval had been fast-tracked and was wrong. The Forest Service didn’t allow local residents to participate in the review or comment on the drilling project before it was approved, nor did the agency take into account the added cumulative impacts of other mining projects in the area on imperiled wildlife.

And our persistence paid off! As our partner from PARA, Wendy Russell, said, “We’re not going to stand by and let the Forest Service rubber-stamp these mining projects in the Patagonia Mountains. There’s too much at stake for both our community and wildlife. This is the second time we’ve had to take them to court, and the second time we’ve won.”

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Working with biologists, regional experts, local conservation groups and grassroots activists, our legal team aggressively advocates for the protection of imperiled wildlife and habitats.

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