Toxic waste is about to bury a desert wilderness, dumped directly onto the current route of the Arizona Trail. The Ripsey Wash area, unchanged and uninterrupted from its primal natural state, is unmarked on most maps. It’s quiet, remote, undisturbed, and a beautifully hostile desert land. There are few, if any other humans, save for the occasional Arizona Trail thru-hiker in spring or fall. And if a company called Asarco has its way, will make sure its forever too dangerous to enter via 750 million tons of mine tailings in an area that’s an immediate tributary to one of Arizona’s largest rivers.
In the spring of 2016, I was descending into Ripsey Wash along the Arizona Trail, an area that corrupt and lost businessmen never see in person. If they did, they wouldn’t be trying to exploit it for short-term private interests. It’s certainly nothing that’s going to achieve National Park status any time soon, but it’s quiet. It’s peaceful. Relaxing. Calming. We need areas like this. We need preserved areas that aren’t jaw-dropping in some way. Just a place where the subtle beauty forces you to look for it so that when you do finally see it, after searching and watching and waiting, it opens up to you.
Once seen, a place like this will show you how every natural piece of the world is interwoven and linked with another. It shows you how no location deserves any more protection than another. It all deserves protection. It’s all just as valuable. It’s the yin to the national parks’ yang. The trough in the wave. The counterpart. One can’t exist without the other. It’s all just as beautiful and just as moving in every way. Some places are just better at hiding it. Most humans, tragically, are too impatient to look for it.
In our modern world of immediate answers and spontaneous social media sharing, we’ve completely forgotten what patience is. We’ve completely forgotten how to just sit and enjoy a place. We’ve forgotten why some places still need protection. In our increasingly rushed and stressed lives, we need grander and grander scenes to snap us out of the cycle of constantly rushing to the next destination. The Teton Mountains, the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, they don’t have that effect on people anymore. The next potential scene will either be from outer space or some natural disaster so unimaginable it will make Hurricane Katrina look like a wading pool.
If people need that to appreciate nature, how can a place like Ripsey Wash be saved? It’s remote. It’s primal. It’s wild and unforgiving. It’s no different in those respects than its neighbors of Saguaro National Park, the Pusch Ridge Wilderness, the Superstition Wilderness, and many others. But it’s secretive. It wants you to look for its beauty. To do this requires more than just driving up and looking at it. You have to relax. You have to open yourself up. You have to study it. You have to immerse yourself in it. You have to feel it and live it and get dirty in it.
That’s why businessmen see it on a map as an expendable area. No one cares about it because no one has time for it. Only a few dedicated Arizona Trail thru-hikers who may or may not see it as more than a section in between the mind-blowing areas.
I for one loved it, but I’m just one naturalist who listened to it while I was passing through. I wasn’t expecting to gain much elevation for the day, and yet, here I was climbing a big hill, ascending to a grand point high above the landscape where views extended into the farthest reaches in the area. A spectacle of desert scenery. A yang.
The cool spring wind blasted me at the top, giving me a burst of refreshment my body needed. One of those winds where it’s gust after gust that feels like it’s just sweeping the sweat off your body.
I was about ready to enjoy myself when my eye picked out something on the other side of the valley. Once I noticed this blot on the landscape, the atrocity of the scene opened up all around it. It was the destroyer of my playgrounds. A saw to the yang. The crusher of dreams (almost literally, actually). I was staring at an enormous strip mine, taking pristine and beautiful mountains and reducing them to a useless unnatural pile of rubble. It may very well be one of the most heartless processes on Earth. I fear for the person that sleeps soundly knowing they’re destroying in months what took hundreds of millions of years to create. Not just the growth of them, but the erosion of them. The plant life that’s evolved with them. Mountains that lived below an ocean at one point, then thrust up over a period of time human minds can’t even fathom. Earthquake after earth-rattling earthquake pushing the peaks ever higher to the sky. Ancient birds learning to fly from their cliffs. Animals finding endless refuges in just one extraordinary range. Then, through the evolutionary magic of plate tectonics, the mountains cease to grow. They stand there, iconic and bold, a testimony to the powers of Mother Nature. But their time is over. Other mountains will reign. The weathering begins and these mountains begin to shrink, ever so gradually over another unfathomable hundreds of millions of years. The plant life changes. The animals migrate in and out. New species discover them in changing climates, bringing new plants with them. Soon, something resembling the Sonoran Desert adopts the mountains and continues to alter the surface of them. But the heart of these mountains have been through much. They’ve seen it all. Almost.
Through eons and eons these mountains stood, giving a home to flora and fauna looking for a home, welcoming all who visited, including the humans. And in less than the blink of an eye of these mountains’ lives, they were reduced to rubble. A massive pile of rubble because they had copper or uranium. Something that just happens to make greedy slugs greedier. Something that’s used to make things for a few years until the next breakthrough comes along. But it pays now. In this moment. So down with the mountains. Never mind the repercussions or the long-term effects.
If there’s any hope to save this area, it’s through public comments. If you want to take part, contact the Los Angeles District of the Army Corps of Engineers immediately through the information listed here:
LOS ANGELES DISTRICT, U.S. ARMY CORPS OF ENGINEERS REGULATORY DIVISION
ATTN: Michael Langley
3636 North Central Avenue, Suite 900
Phoenix, AZ 85012-1939
Whether you email or send a letter, your comments could very well be what decides the fate of this area. Please help out. Even if you’ve never been there or heard of it, your feedback is invaluable.