Three conservation groups - the Defenders of Wildlife, the Sky Island Alliance and the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance - recently filed a joint lawsuit aiming to halt exploration on the Hardshell Project, a proposed mine near Patagonia.

Wendy Russell of the Patagonia Area Resource Alliance said the groups are asking the courts to put the project on hold until the Forest Service undertakes a thorough environmental review of its impacts.

"We want the Forest Service to give this proposed drilling project the serious consideration it is due," Russell said. "A large part of our economy depends on tourism to these wild places. More important, the project is sited along Harshaw Creek, a major source of water for the town of Patagonia.

"We hope the court recognizes the importance of putting this project on hold until the Forest Service does the proper analysis."

Filed on Dec. 22 at the U.S. District Court of Arizona in Tucson, the lawsuit names as defendants the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and its chief, Tom Tidwell; Coronado National Forest Supervisor (CNFS) Jim Upchurch; and Acting District Ranger Kathleen Nelson of the Sierra Vista Ranger District.

In October, the Forest Service approved a plan of operations submitted by Arizona Minerals, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Wildcat Silver Corporation, to conduct exploratory drilling on public lands bordering the Hardshell Project. The plaintiffs claim that decision was made without required studies of how the drilling will impact endangered wildlife and the environment.

"They didn't do any analysis at all. I think that the proponent (Wildcat Silver Corp.) had their own consultants do a real cursory assessment," said Jenny Neeley, conservation policy director for the Sky Island Alliance.

In addition, Neeley said, the area is a wildlife corridor which is "very likely being used by ocelots and jaguars and other endangered sensitive species," including Mexican spotted owls and lesser long-nosed bats.

Neeley also said the Forest Service never considered the larger scenario of having two other proposed mines - the pending Oz and Providencia projects - thrown into the mix.

"The Forest Service never looked at the accumulative impact of all these mines going into such a small area - the Patagonia Mountains are not a big range," Neeley said.

She said she hopes the Forest Service will also take a hard look before approving projects for the other two proposed mines in the area.

"The lawsuit is really about them just following the law and the law says they need to do an environmental assessment if their is a chance a project like this could impact the environment," Neeley said.

Coronado National Forest Spokesperson Heidi Schewel declined to comment on the suit, citing Forest Service policy against commenting on ongoing litigation. But Wildcat representative Greg Lucero said the process the Forest Service followed for the 15 exploratory drillings adjacent to the company's property was thorough, and noted that it took nearly a year for the review and approval. "The Forest Service correctly followed the legal process for this type of an activity," he wrote in an e-mail response.

Lucero called the complaint an example of "grasping for a straw that does not exist," saying there has not been a jaguar sighting in the area in a half century, and that there has never been a sighting of an ocelot in the Patagonia Mountains.

"A mine plan has not been initiated, completed or submitted, as we are in the exploration and review process to determine if and how we should proceed," Lucero wrote. "More often than not, exploration does not lead to mining. If we do decide to move forward we will complete all necessary environmental reviews and studies."

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