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Bill introduced to protect sacred Apache site from development
Monday, March 15, 2021

Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) have once again introduced legislation to permanently protect a sacred Apache site from development.

H.R.1884, the Save Oak Flat Act repeals a contested federal law that paved the way for a huge mine at Oak Flat in Arizona. Though the project is on hold thanks to President Joe Biden, the two lawmakers want to make sure the site is forever protected.

“The San Carlos Apache never asked for this land to become a political issue, but this is not a fight we’re going to lose,” Grijalva, who introduced the U.S. House of Representatives version of the bill, said on Monday. “I will work to move this bill forward, this land is going to be protected, and we’re going to establish that you don’t get to push around Native American communities just because you can make a profit.”

“The Biden administration was doing its job in withdrawing the Trump administration’s politically motivated analysis, and now that we can move forward in a more rational way, this land is going to be protected for the long term,” said Grijalva.

“Too many times our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the profits of huge corporations put ahead of their sovereign rights,” said Sanders, the author of the companion bill in the U.S. Senate. “It is wrong that a backroom deal in Washington could lead to the destruction of a sacred area that is so important to so many. We must defend the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are standing in opposition to this giveaway of our natural resources to foreign corporations.”

In the final months of the Donald Trump administration, the U.S. Forest Service moved to complete a land swap between the federal government and foreign interests behind the Resolution Copper mine project. The final environmental statement (FEIS) and the draft record of decision (ROD) were issued on January 15, just five days before Biden took office.

Despite the apparent rush to finalize the project, signs of change began to emerge in the nation’s capital not long after. On February 11, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP), an independent federal agency, said it would no longer go along with the Forest Service’s plans for the mine.

“It is clear that the proposed undertaking would destroy significant historic properties, including the highly significant Oak Flat,” John M. Fowler, the executive director of the ACHP, wrote in a letter to the Tonto National Forest, where the mine would be located. The letter was written after the Trump-appointed leader of the ACHP left the government.

Then on March 1, the Forest Service shared a “project update” about the mine. The agency rescinded the FEIS and ROD and said it would engage in more consultation with the San Carlos Apache Tribe and other Indian nations affected by the land swap.

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

Amid the change in course, the ACHP on March 4 said it had collected more than 500 comments about Oak Flat. The comments will be submitted to the Department of Agriculture by March 29.

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