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OAK FLAT, Arizona — To make good on Joe Biden’s recent Presidential Memorandum for tribal consultation and strengthening nation-to-nation relationships, the U.S. Forest Service on has rescinded its permit for a massive foreign copper mine that would engulf sacred Apache sites here.
For years, the two biggest metal mining companies in the world, Rio Tinto and BHPBilliton, have sought to open the Resolution Copper Mine at this location 50 miles east of Phoenix.
They have encountered a block of opposition from the San Carlos Apache Tribe, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Fort McDowell Yavapai Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, the InterTribal Council of Arizona and the National Congress of American Indians.
San Carlos Apache Tribal Chair Terry Rambler called the withdrawal of the permit “the right move,” noting, “The Resolution Copper Mine Project will desecrate Chich’il Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, which is the heart of our religious and cultural beliefs.”
The tribe took the Forest Service to court for failing to follow the law in the preparation of the final environmental impact statement, which was fast-tracked to permit the project on Jan. 15, under the previous Administration of former President Donald Trump.
For more than six years, tribal members and allies have been holding camps, rallies, relay runs and other demonstrations to resist the mining on sacred treaty land.
“This fight has never been about just one site: It’s been about ending the cycle of ignoring tribal input whenever it suits polluters,” U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said in a joint media release with Rambler.
“The Trump Administration rushed this document out the door as just one more favor to industry, regardless of how legally or scientifically unsupportable it was,” he said, pledging to renew efforts to introduce the Save Oak Flat Act.
The act is seen as a means to prevent a land transfer that deprives the Apache of access to 2,400 acres in the Tonto National Forest in order for Resolution Copper to mine. This transfer was approved in a midnight rider on the must-pass 2015 National Defense Authorization Act.
The Legend of Apache Tears has it that 75 Apache warriors trapped on a mountain ledge here leaped to their death rather than be killed by the U.S. troops surrounding them.
“This sacred land has become a relative to the Apache. This land is a teacher and a spiritual guide. Chich’il Bildagoteel plays a critical role in Apache culture,” said Jade Begay, a Diné and Tesuque multimedia artist, digital storyteller and media strategist.
Begay said the coming-of-age ceremonies held at Oak Flat “provide young Apache people with identity and spiritual grounding as they enter adulthood.”
Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr., former chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and Apache Stronghold leader, said the plaintiffs “are greatly encouraged by the fact that the Appellate Court is moving ahead to listen to our concerns on an accelerated timetable ending by May 6. It’s been nothing but a nightmare with from day one,” he added.
Appellate Judge Patrick Bumatay recently wrote in an order:
“For a great many people, religious and spiritual tradition is among their most precious inheritances. The Western Apaches are no different. For hundreds of years, they have worshipped at a location in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest believed to be the most sacred of grounds—Oak Flat.”
“… It is no overestimation to say that Oak Flat is the spiritual lifeblood of the Western Apache peoples, connecting them to the Creator since before the founding of the Nation. This is an obvious substantial burden on their religious exercise.”
He concluded that “Apache Stronghold has established a strong likelihood of success on the merits” of the case.
Apache Stronghold attorney Michael Nixon said the government’s “last-minute pickup of its dirty dealing at Oak Flat just temporarily paused the emergency before the 9th Circuit Court. We look ahead to a straighter deal in court, both for the Apaches’ religious freedom and for their 1852 Treaty rights to the land at Oak Flat.”
Conservation organizations ranging from the Sierra Club to the Arizona Audubon Society have expressed serious concerns about the mining proposal. The Concerned Citizens and Retired Miners Association has formed to oppose the land transfer. Climbing organizations, including The Access Fund and Concerned Climbers of Arizona, are also engaged trying to stop the project.