Sacrificing the Sacred Mountains

To the Navajo, the extinct volcano marking the western pillar of their sprawling reservation is called Diichiti, the Mountain of Strength. It is sacred ground to the Navajo, Havasupi and Hopi tribes.

Arizona activists demonstrate against pumice mining in the San Francisco Peaks.Courtesy of  Save the Peaks

But these San Francisco Peaks are also home to the White Vulcan Pumice Mine, a U.S. Forest Service-permitted extraction operation located outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. In recent years the mine has been given a new lease on life, thanks to the international popularity of stone-washed jeans, which are processed with white pumice stone extracted here.

The mine owners have notified the U.S. Forest Service that they intend to expand by 30 acres to meet demand for the mineral. This means stripping the area of trees and vegetation, and then using bulldozers to remove the pumice deposited there. The company's operations have already allegedly damaged archeological sites on the mountain. “The public will have to decide if they want to tear out a page of history in order to have stone-washed jeans,” says Dr. Chris Downum, professor of archeology at Northern Arizona University.

The mining operation and its proposed expansion has been the focus of prayer vigils and protests from the Native American tribes and local environmental activists. “This is a female mountain, which represents the fall season, adulthood and the physical strength of life in general,” says Ben Silversmith, a representative of the Navajo Nation.

The Arizona U.S. Attorney's Office is moving ahead with a lawsuit aimed at recovering more than $300,000 from the mine's owners, Arizona Tufflite of Glendale, for minerals allegedly removed over the past decade without a contract or legal authority. But the company has cited the federal mining law of 1872 as its legal authority, maintaining that the sweeping public lands law, which includes pumice as a “locatable” mineral similar to gold and silver, allows its removal without paying royalties. “It is outrageous that a law passed in 1872, during the days of picks and shovels, has complete control over the management of public lands today,” says Sharon Galbreath of the Sierra Club.

Many of the issues at White Vulcan have been upheld in the government's favor in four other hearings. Sierra Club and Flagstaff environmental activists hope the outcome of the January trial will mark a new era of regulatory enforcement by the U.S. Forest Service, and lead to the eventual closing of the mine. “We applaud the Forest Service for their efforts to bring these outlaw miners to justice,” says Andrew Bessler, a Sierra Club spokesman.