Indianz.Com > News > San Carlos Apache Tribe cheers ‘right move’ to protect sacred site from copper mine
Indianz.Com Video: Save Oak Flat | Naelyn Pike | US Capitol
San Carlos Apache Tribe cheers ‘right move’ to protect sacred site from copper mine
Monday, March 1, 2021

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Just a week after asking a federal judge to stop a huge copper mine on sacred territory, the San Carlos Apache Tribe is celebrating the Biden administration’s decision to pull back the controversial development.

In a statement on Monday, Chairman Terry Rambler said the U.S. Department of Agriculture — now under new leadership thanks to the election of Joe Biden as president — has withdrawn the last-minute federal approvals of the Resolution Copper Mine at Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site in Arizona.

“This is the right move by the Department of Agriculture,” said Rambler. “The Resolution project will desecrate Chich’il Bildagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, which is the heart of our religious and cultural beliefs.”

Rambler pointed out that the tribe is already suing the United States for issuing the final environmental statement (FEIS) and the draft record of decision for the copper mine mine on January 15. The actions were among the last taken during the Donald Trump administration, when Indian Country’s needs, views and interests were often at the bottom of the list.

“As noted in our federal lawsuit, the U.S. Forest Service failed to follow the law in the preparation of a sham final environmental impact statement that was being used to justify trading away our sacred land to further enrich wealthy foreign mining companies,” said Rambler.

But on the same day objections were due to the final mine approvals, the tribe’s supporters are also cheering the new development from the nation’s capital.

“This fight has never been about just one site — it’s been about ending the cycle of ignoring tribal input whenever it suits polluters,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), the chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources. “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.”

Both Rambler and Grijalva, however, noted that the fight is far from over. The foreign backers of Resolution Copper can still pursue federal approval of the cooper mine, a process that was set in place more than six years ago by Congress under a hotly contested provision tucked inside of a 1,648-page bill.

“We look forward to continuing our work to permanently protect Oak Flat,” said Chairman Rambler.

To that end, Grijalva said he would once again introduce legislation to repeal the controversial law that paved the way for the mine. With Democrats in control of both chambers of Congress and with Democrat Joe Biden in the White House, securing permanent protections of Oak Flat now appears within sight.

“The Biden administration is doing the right thing with this reset, and I intend to reintroduce the Save Oak Flat Act in the coming days to make sure this needless controversy is settled on the side of justice once and for all,” said Grijalva.

Grijalva has been trying to repeal Section 3003 of the National Defense Authorization Act since it became law in 2014. But Republicans controlled the U.S. House of Representatives for most of the time since then, and the Save Oak Flat Act never even got a hearing.

The political landscape began to change in the 116th Congress, when Democrats took over the House. Last March, Grijalva’s committee hosted one of the last in-person hearings of the pre-pandemic era, when elders and citizens of the San Carlos Apache Tribe came to Capitol Hill to protect Oak Flat from the copper mine.

“What they are trying to do is to come on Apache territory, our ancestral Apache homeland, and destroy the entire area for a mining corporation,” Naelyn Pike, a young Apache leader, said at a rally at the U.S. Capitol on the day before the hearing.

Citizens and supporters of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, including former Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr., far left, rallied at the U.S. Capitol on March 11, 2020, to call attention to the effort to protect Oak Flat in Arizona from development. Photo by Indianz.Com (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

On the U.S. Senate side, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has been trying to repeal Section 3003. Last week, he brought up the mine to Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico), who has been nominated to serve as Secretary of the Interior in the Biden administration.

“If confirmed, will you do everything in your power to prevent Oak Flat from being sacrificed?” asked Sanders at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources last Tuesday.

“I believe that is within the purview of the Forest Service,” Haaland responded. “However if i have an opportunity i would look forward to being briefed on it, to making sure that the voice of the tribal nation is heard on that issue.”

But Sanders too was stymied by Republicans who previously controlled his chamber. In the 117th Congress, Democrats now have the upper hand in the Senate, which confirmed Secretary Vilsack on February 23 by a vote of 92-7.

Indianz.Com Video: Save Oak Flat | Vernelda Grant | US Capitol

Haaland, who is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, awaits further action on her nomination. If confirmed, she would be the first Native person to lead the Department of the Interior, the federal agency with the most trust and treaty responsibilities in Indian Country.

“It is heartening that the Forest Service has listened to the overwhelming outcry from the public over the many deficiencies in the FEIS and the process that led to the release of a flawed document,” said Roger Featherstone, the director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, a group that opposes the Resolution Copper project at Oak Flat.

“This underscores yet again that the Resolution Copper project is a fatally flawed failed experiment. We urge the US Congress to pass legislation, as the Forest Service’s statement suggests, to once and forever end this proposed project and permanently protect Oak Flat,” Featherstone, underscoring efforts by the San Carlos Apache Tribe and supporters in Congress to take further action.

Indianz.Com Audio: House Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States – The Irreparable Environmental and Cultural Impacts of the Proposed Resolution Copper Mining Operation – March 12, 2020

Oak Flat is located within the Tonto National Forest, on land managed by the federal government. Apache people go there to pray, hold ceremonies and gather food.

Resolution Copper is a joint venture of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, which are foreign-owned corporations based in the United Kingdom and in Australia. Project backers had welcomed the Trump era decision to move forward with the mine.

“We are committed to ongoing engagement with Native American tribes and working to seek consent before any decision on the development of the project, consistent with the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) Statement on Indigenous Peoples and Mining,” project director Andrew Lye said on January 15, just five days before President Joe Biden took office.

At the time, Resolution Copper anticipated the land swap to occur in March. The transfer of federal property to the foreign corporations is currently off the table with the Biden administration’s action on Monday, pending further decisions that the Forest Service said could be “several months” away.

Resolution Copper Project and Land Exchange Environmental Impact Statement
The U.S. Forest Service posted the following “project update” on March 1, 2021, in connection with the proposed copper mine at Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site in Arizona.

On January 15, 2021, the Tonto National Forest released the Resolution Copper Project Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) and draft Record of Decision (ROD) for objection. In the time since these documents were released, the Agency and Department have received significant input from collaborators, partners, and the public through a variety of means. Today, USDA directed the Forest Service to withdraw the Notice of Availability and rescind the Final Environmental Impact Statement and draft Record of Decision. The pre-decisional objection period will be halted as well.

The project is proposed on Oak Flat, a site sacred to numerous Federally Recognized Tribes in the Southwest. The Department is taking this step to provide an opportunity for the agency to conduct a thorough review based on significant input received from collaborators, partners, and the public since these documents were released. The recent Presidential Memorandum on tribal consultation and strengthening nation to nation relationships counsels in favor of ensuring the Forest Service has complied with the environmental, cultural, and archaeological analyses required. USDA has concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by Tribes and the public and the project’s impacts to these important resources and ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law. USDA and the Forest Service also understand that under federal law that the Forest Service has limited discretion related to protection of Oak Flat. Because the Resolution Copper Mine and Land Exchange Project was directed under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, long term protection of the site will likely require an act of Congress. USDA and the Forest Service cannot give a precise length of time for completing the re-initiation of consultation but consultations such as this generally take several months.
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