Blinders Off in the Borderlands: Patagonia, Arizona

While the quaint bordertown of Patagonia, Arizona has become one of the country’s most intriguing gravel riding destinations, the region’s rapidly expanding mining operations barely make mention. That’s going to change. As Patagonia local, cyclist and activist Loren Mason-Gere writes below, the changes are coming fast and the impacts can’t be ignored.

I wheeled the van into a parking spot one-handed, reached across my body with the same good arm, opened the door, and gently slid to the ground. I shuffled towards the hall, six broken ribs making themselves known with every breath.

With a variety of high-consequence changes coming fast to the 900-person borderlands community of Patagonia, Arizona a series of community meetings were to be held to gather public opinion. International corporate mining, city planning, affordable housing, increased traffic and outdoor recreation – particularly cycling, were among the discussion points. As a relative new-comer I didn’t expect an invite, but my recent run-in with an industrial road-grader had lent me some notoriety.

When it was my turn to share, attendees were clearly surprised that industrial traffic wasn’t at the top of my list. I understood their confusion. Just two weeks before as I finished a morning ride, a county-operated tractor turned across my lane.

With no signal, flagger or stop sign to warn me, it was reflex against machine. Luckily fifteen years of riding and racing bikes paid off. Rather than slamming the brakes and taking the blow head on, I swerved right, clipping the monstrous wheel with my left side. When the helicopter left the accident site, no one – least of all myself – knew the extent of my injuries. The fact that I’d be walking, talking, thinking and chewing by the end of the day is a fortunate blessing I won’t soon take for granted.

Despite my intimate understanding of the very real risk of the coming industrial traffic, the mine itself got my vote for gravest concern.

Patagonia, AZ – Gravel Destination

Though it is now famous as a gravel and adventure-riding destination, bikes were quite literally the last thing that brought me to Patagonia. I’d first heard of the quaint town through it’s other, arguably more worthy claims to fame – Borderlands Restoration Network and The Tree of Life. The former is a field-leading environmental organization, the latter a world-famous healing center – or neo-Jewish cult, depending on who you asked.

This fascinating combination of ventures inhabiting a small town on the Mexican border hit high notes in both personal interest and absurdist intrigue. It stuck squarely in my mind. When it also started catching attention as a cycling hot-spot by industry influencers such as Sarah Swallow, The Cyclist’s Menu, and the pages of this website I knew I had to go.

I rolled into Patagonia on a sunny December day nine months later and immediately fell in love. Sure, the riding was – and is – spectacular, but the place itself is what grabbed me.

People still know each other in Patagonia. They turn out for local events, lend a hand and mind their manners. Volunteer hours are easy to come by. There’s no grocery store, gas station or stop-light, but there’s a thriving arts scene and burgeoning nature-based economy. After my accident my phone about burst with near-strangers in the community wishing well and offering support.

Those of us with our filiform hairs still intact pick up a feeling here not easily forgotten. I’m not the only person that came here and forgot to leave. Locals call it the “Patagonia glue.”

South 32 Hermosa Project

If you rode here two years ago, you’d have easily missed the mine entirely. The access point was minimized by the enormity of the landscape and like the beauty-stripped highways of my native Pacific Northwest, most the damage was out of view. The mine’s ubiquitous company pick-ups driving around the hills blended better than the now-constant heavy machinery. Their orange visibility flags flapped in the wind, like a warning of changes to come, but the message was largely missed.

By the time of my accident, riding down Harshaw road was a drastically different experience than when I arrived. Heading South out of town, through the Patagonia Mountains and into the San Rafael Valley beyond, Harshaw is the main artery of both Patagonia’s now-famous gravel riding and the should-be famous South 32’s Hermosa Project mine.

As I write today, the impact has re-doubled and by next Fall, between two and three hundred semi-trucks per day will drive that same two-lane country road – not to mention passenger vehicles and employee shuttles. Three park and ride lots are under construction and a new hilltops seem to be flattened daily. While the coming changes will drastically reduce the pleasure of riding here and equally increase the likelihood of accidents like mine, those impacts are trivial in the big picture.

Madrean Biodiversity

No matter how you look at it, these mountains are rich. They’re among the most biologically diverse places in the continent. Here in the Madrean Archipelago, North America’s Rocky Mountains phase out as Mexico’s Sierra Madre rise south. Life of all forms follow the spines of their respective ranges to this terminus, creating an evolutionary trading-ground. In order to avoid mass species extinction, the world-famous ecologist E.O. Wilson says this area is among the most important places in the world to protect.

Mining has posed threats to this ecosystem for centuries, but today, they’re existential. The landscape below ground is as complex and fragile as above. The mineral deposits are folded into a striated maze of underground rock formations in which the aquifer fills its channels. It is both a geological marvel and a hindrance to extraction. As shaft depths increase, likelihood of drilling into a water-vein drastically increases. The last mining outfit working the lands now owned by South 32 abandoned their project after a series of shafts flooded. The new owners have a work-around. They plan to drain the aquifer.

In strikingly Orwellian phrasing, their plan necessitates “de-watering” the entire watershed – pumping out all the groundwater so that unmanned heavy machinery can do their work three thousand feet below the surface. Their requested permits would allow 6.4 million gallons of water to be dumped down Harshaw Creek per day. There is no contingency plan for town flood risk, no guarantees of water access to land-owners, and little water testing or mitigation included in their plan.

While the mine claims the aquifer will “recharge,” hydrologists are quick to point out that underground water at these depths has been there for centuries and would take equally long to replenish. Regardless, South 32’s plans for a “multi-generational” operation with sufficient raw material to mine for at least 75 years, such a process is far-fetched.

One of Arizona’s few naturally water-sufficient communities could soon be drained dry.

Both local and national environmental watchdogs are hard at work with mine mitigation and legal actions, but it is an uphill battle. Thanks to the Biden administration’s Fast41 program, green lights have been lit. Permitting processes were eagerly accelerated in the name of “renewable energy.” It seems all but assured that today’s quaint community and adventure-riding hotspot will be tomorrow’s largest Manganese mine in the nation.

Though lesser known in American extraction, manganese extraction has become wildly profitable due to its use in electric vehicle batteries. It is as dangerous as it is valuable. Regular exposure to high doses – be it though food, water or air – leads to permanent neurological dysregulation and uncontrollable movements akin to Parkinson’s disease. Research shows that mining dust poses significant health risk to those living within 12.5 miles of mining sites. The Hermosa project begins 8 miles from town.

The growth of gravel riding in Patagonia arose concurrent to South 32’s development but the mining impact has thus far appeared been easy for cyclists to ignore. It won’t be for long.

The mine is big and getting bigger. Between road construction, previously existing ranch vehicles, mine employees, and increasing semi-truck traffic, traffic in the area is changing fast. Last October, my quiet morning ride around Apache took a sudden and brutal change. Escaping with just eight broken bones and a totaled “dream bike” was a comparatively happy ending. I hope it’s the same for any others to come. Either way, the story is far from over, and the stakes are high.

Discomfort is the lifeblood of outdoor adventure. It’s what drives us to harder trails, new routes and wild places. We go out into the world to find out what’s beneath our own skin. In a society saturated in comfort, this unflinching contact with reality is liberating. We can’t talk our way out of wrong turns or dodge the impact of a poor decision. When we drain our bottle with two hours to go, the struggle is ours, and we face it. Most of us go back for more.

The hard truths of our times have to be faced with the same athletic stoicism that drives a ride. We need not look away. Hiding behind the apathetic prompt to not worry if “nothing can be done” turns adage into prophesy. We can do better, even in the face of such enormity.

While it is true that the mine is unlikely to be stopped, it can – and has already – been mitigated. There is an amazing community in Patagonia, with legal and environmental expertise lent from around the nation. There are skillsets and knowledge bases hard at work that no one – least of all the mining execs – expected to find in a rural town of 900 people. As my friend Boyce assured me when I moved here, “These aren’t your average 900 people.”

Local watchdog group Patagonia Area Resource (PARA) alliance has done amazing work to limit damages and mitigate the coming changes. Their work has just begun.

Despite the future outcome, we owe it to this place, these people, and our time to know the truth and tell it the same.

If you, like so many of us in recent years, have had the honor of riding in these lands, consider giving back. Take a moment to learn more, tell a friend, or pitch in. Come back next season while the riding’s still good, share some love and life and for the love of god, don’t just look away. If you can’t join the fight, at least lend your witness.



As of May 17th, the Department of Defense has given South32 Hermosa an additional $20M in funding under the new Defense Production Act grant. The grant was created to fund the mining of Manganese, a federally designated critical mineral for which this will be the first domestic source.