The Curious Case of Patagonia, Arizona

Ranchers, cyclists and environmentalists collide with mining operations and the future of the Arizona borderlands

A Valley in Flux

The San Rafael Valley is a high mountain grassland whose last 175 years has been shaped by cattle ranching, mining, and the U.S. Mexican border. Its iconic red dirt roads - maintained by the U.S. Border Patrol - have been attracting increasing numbers of gravel cyclists, making for unlikely partnerships in the surrounding community of Patagonia, Arizona, as a massive Zinc mine furthers its exploration of the mountains outside town. 

With a feasibility study underway, one of the most impoverished counties in the state is left to wonder if the jobs will be worth the disturbance. With weakening environmental protections and the water quality of a key migratory corridor at stake, all eyes are on the hills in anticipation of the final decision and downstream affects. Land owners and environmental groups fall on both side of the line for mining, which donates heavily to local organizations but has been unable to win over many concerned about the future of the towns finite water supply.

The town of Patagonia, the border patrol and the mine all cooperated for a first annual 100 mile gravel race in 2019. Sharing the remote dirt roads on an active border requires trust and communication. Both tourism and mining seem to promise economic stability to one of the poorest areas in the state. Can they coexist? At what cost / benefit to their fragile local environment?

A Town Faces its Future

With the holdings of Australian owned mining company South32 separating the town of Patagonia from the San Rafael Valley, commercial operations require mine approval for permits with the Coronado National Forest. As the thousand person town looks to its economic future, it embraces two traditionally conflicting paths in welcoming cyclists and the extraction industry.

With the influx of cyclists following a successful year one of a gravel race, the sport's long-term role in the landscape will hinge greatly on the cooperation of the mining industry and the U.S. Border Patrol which manage key pieces of the road system. The three groups will come together again for the second year of The Spirit World 100 in November 2020, presenting a dynamic filming opportunity.

Zinc's role in the bike fabricating process provides a clear and graphic way of tying the material to the landscape, and of asking hard questions about the hypocrisy of activism and outdoor recreation.


The town of Patagonia, AZ is located in the valley of Sonoita Creek between the Santa Rita Mountains to the north and the Patagonia Mountains to the south. State route 82 passes through the town. Nogales lies to the southwest and Sonoita to the northeast. The old mining camps (now ghost towns) of HarshawDuquesne and Lochiel lie to the southeast along the eastern margin of the Patagonia Mountains. The high San Rafael Valley also lies to the southeast. Patagonia Lake State Park around Patagonia Lake lies about six miles southwest of the town.

Credit: Wikipedia


Zander Ault & Heidi Rentz

Zander Ault and his partner, Heidi Rentz run a cycling touring company out of Patagonia, permitted by South32 to operate on their property. They are responsible for creating the annual Spirit World 100 gravel race, which is coordinated with the town of Patagonia, South32 mine, Border Patrol, and the Coronado National Forest.

San Rafael Ranchers

Grass-fed cattle operations in the heart of the San Rafael Valley have varying opinions on the wisdom of cooperating with mining operations and the future of their grasslands. Eight families own the majority of the private land in the area.

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South32 Mine


Headquartered out of Western Australia, South32 has been mining Zinc in the San Rafael Valley for the past two years. They are the gate keepers for access to the public and one of our main characters in our film. 

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Andrea "Andy" Wood - Mayor of Patagonia

Elected Mayor of Patagonia, AZ with just 178 votes, Andy has seen both the upside and risk of her town's far and away largest employer.


Gustavo Amado - local resident


Local native to Patagonia, AZ and current resident in Tuscan, AZ. A frequent visitor to the Borderlands region for recreation that can speak to the life with the mines and the effects it's had on the land. 


Gayle Hartmann - local resident


Gayle has worked as a scientific editor, archaeologist, historian and conservationist for the past 40 years. She is currently president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas.

Patagonia Area Resource Alliance


A grassroots, non-profit community alliance committed to preserving and protecting the Patagonia, Arizona area. We are a citizen watchdog organization that monitors the activities of mining companies, as well as ensures government agencies’ due diligence, to make sure their actions have long-term, sustainable benefits to our public lands, our water, and the town of Patagonia.

Borderlands Restoration Network


An independent public charity, the 501c3 collaborative of multiple organizations works to build a regional restoration-based economy in which diverse, fulfilling livelihoods support the restoration of thriving natural ecosystems and build prosperous, vibrant, healthy communities in the US – Mexico borderlands. 

The Nature Conservancy


The first NC project in Arizona, an 873-acre preserve protects a magnificent example of the rare Fremont cottonwood-Goodding willow riparian forest in the San Rafael Valley. Some of the trees are among the largest (more than 100 feet tall) and oldest (130 years old) Fremont cottonwood trees in this country. This is one of the few remaining sites in Arizona where this once-common forest type still persists. Arizona black walnut, velvet mesquite, velvet ash, netleaf hackberry, and various willows are found in slightly different habitats throughout the preserve.

What is the film?

The Curious Case of Patagonia, Arizona presents an opportunity to examine a complex environmental dynamic presented to different communities all over the globe. Can outdoor recreation and industry coexist, and at what cost to the environment?


Meet The Team

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Will Freihofer

Producer, Photographer

A science journalist by training, Will Freihofer is a commercial photographer with an interest in narrative storytelling.

Evan Kay

Director, DP

Evan Kay, owner of Climb High Productions LLC is an accomplished outdoor filmmaker and storyteller.