President Donald Trump’s administration has sped up a process that will hand over the rights to a sacred Apache Indigenous area outside of Phoenix, Arizona, to a mining company by next month—a full year ahead of schedule.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to release its official environmental impact statement that will give the go-ahead to transfer Oak Flat in the Tonto National Forest to the mining company Resolution Copper, a joint venture by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, a year before its planned December 2021 date.
The announcement came just days after the Trump administration issued an executive order that declared the U.S. dependence on China for “critical minerals” a national emergency and vowed to “cut down on unnecessary delays in permitting actions.”
Some see the expedited process to mine the Oak Flat as part of a final push to weaken environmental regulations and fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to bring back mining jobs from abroad.
“They are afraid of what a (Joe) Biden administration would do and so they want to get this done now,” Randy Serraglio, who works at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity, said.
Once the Environmental Impact Statement is released, Tonto National Forest will have at most 60 days to finish the land exchange, but critics think it will try and execute as fast as possible to avoid litigation and public opposition.
Democratic Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva and Senator Bernie Sanders have introduced a bill calling for the land transfer to be repealed. “If the land exchange happens, it will be difficult to roll back,” Grijalva told the Guardian.
“The Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a rushed job just to take care of Rio Tinto,” he said. “And the fact they are doing it during COVID makes it even more disgusting. Trump and Rio Tinto know the tribes’ reaction would be very strong and public under normal circumstances but the tribes are trying to save their people right now.”
The desertous and otherworldly Oak Flat is located in the outskirts of the San Carlos Apache reservation, and has been a highly contested area for more than two decades. In 1995, enormous copper deposits were found 7,000 feet, or five Eiffel Towers, beneath the ground. Resolution Copper hopes to extract 1.4 billion tons of ore and 40 billion pounds of copper cliff by using a technique called panel caving, which could likely cause the collapse of surrounding land and leave a giant crater once the company is finished mining.
Local Indigenous communities are worried about the destruction of the land, particularly Apache Leap, the site of a mass suicide in which warriors jumped off to escape an onslaught of U.S. soldiers in the 1870s. On top of that, the area is also considered to have the best-preserved artifacts of Apache culture and is the location of Sunrise coming-of-age ceremonies.
“I tell people that it’s no different than when people talk about the Holy Land,” Wendsler Nosie Sr., an Apache activist, told VICE News. “This place is a place where you can be born and die of old age because it has everything… It’s a provider for all.”
In an email, Dan Blondeau, a spokesperson for Resolution Copper, ensured that Resolution Copper was going to protect Apache Leap and that it was “partnering with consulting Western Apache tribes… (to) protect and conserve culturally significant Emory Oak groves.”
But Native opposition against the mine is strong and Nosie Sr., who lives in Oak Flat, said that the company feels “no responsibility to talk to the tribes.” He also says it hasn’t spoken to him or others he knows about some of Apache’s spiritual concerns.
In 2012, a Senate hearing addressed the issue of the Apache peoples’ fight against Resolution Copper.
“Senator (Jon) Kyl and I (are constantly) urging that the San Carlos Apache Tribe just sit down, just listen to the Resolution Copper,” Senator John McCain said. “They refuse to do it.”
Two years later, McCain pushed for the land transfer to Rio Tinto, through one of his infamous “midnight rider” maneuvers. Although the Obama administration protected the Oak Flats through a “Historic Places” designation in 2015, this does not override the 1872 General Mining Law, which includes a provision that favors industry over environmental concerns when it comes to mining.
Despite Resolution Copper’s promise that it will bring great economic benefits to the Apache community and that it is working with locals to ensure it respects sacred land, the Guardian reported that Rio Tinto destroyed an ancient Aboriginal site in Western Australia earlier this year even after it claimed it had been working with Native people for decades.
“We deeply regret the events at Juukan Gorge and have unreservedly apologised to the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura (PKKP) people,” the company wrote in a public statement.
In its final year in power, Trump has green-lit similar projects that were deemed detrimental to the environment by past administrations. In Alaska, the Trump administration is hastening the auctioning off of drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In Minnesota, officials renewed mineral leases to a copper mining company inside the Superior National Forest.
Aside from its cultural and spiritual significance, Oak Flat is known as a place of awesome natural splendor and is home to endangered ocelots, the charismatic hedgehog cactus, and its namesake tree, the Emory oak.
Some locals believe that the only hope to save the natural area now would be a major legal intervention by the next administration.
“Joe Biden can thank Native people, 90 percent of whom voted for him, for winning Arizona,” Serraglio said. “I hope he can recognize that and do the right thing.”