A Final Stand Seeks To Save Holy Apache Land In Arizona’s High Desert

Above: Former San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr. addresses Apache Stronghold on Jan. 10.

UPDATE: Jan. 15 ― The Trump administration on Friday approved a controversial land exchange in Arizona, lifting a major hurdle for Resolution Copper Mining LLC to move forward with developing a massive underground mine beneath a historic Apache cultural site.

“This project is complex, and the impacts were rigorously analyzed over the past five years,” Tom Torres, acting supervisor of Tonto National Forest, said in a statement accompanying the release of a final environmental review of the project. “The project also included consultation with affected Indian tribes to best address the negative impacts to sacred tribal lands,” he added.

OAK FLAT, Ariz. ― In November 2019, Wendsler Nosie Sr. sent a letter informing the U.S. Forest Service of his plan to “return home” to Oak Flat, a high desert oasis in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest that the Apache people hold sacred.

This wouldn’t be a weekend retreat. Instead, the former San Carlos Apache tribal chairman would establish permanent residency there in a spiritual quest to protect the holy site from being “murdered” at the hands of foreign mining firms. A few days later, Nosie ran some 40 miles from the San Carlos Apache Indian Reservation to Oak Flat, carrying with him a staff adorned with eagle feathers. 

More than a year later, Nosie is still there, protesting a mining company’s plan to turn Oak Flat into one of North America’s largest copper mines. His stand may soon come to an end, as the outgoing Trump administration is racing to finalize a land swap that would turn over 2,400 acres of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Anglo-Australian mining firms Rio Tinto and BHP. 

The U.S. Forest Service is expected to publish a final environmental review of the proposed mine on Friday ― months ahead of its earlier schedule and five days before President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated. The move would trigger a 60-day deadline for the government to complete the land exchange. 

“We’re on pins and needles,” Nosie told HuffPost last weekend at his Oak Flat camp, where he and other Apache tribal members gathered to pray ahead of the looming announcement.

Once the deal goes through, Nosie expects he’ll be forced out of his Oak Flat camp.

On Tuesday, tribal advocacy nonprofit Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit to block the Forest Service from publishing that statement, arguing that the land swap violates Apache tribal religious freedom and due process rights. Nosie, the group’s founder, said they’ve done everything they can to fight off the powerful forces championing the giant mine. Now, they’re left to pray.

“I’m praying to the country that they wake up, because once the water is contaminated and gone…” he paused, letting out a deep sigh, “we’re looking at a disaster for our children and grandchildren that are yet to be born. They’re going to suffer the consequences.”

Biden has not publicly addressed the controversial Arizona project, and his transition team did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. The incoming administration is already being pressured to block the land swap, should it be finalized before his Jan. 20 inauguration, by swiftly rescinding the Trump administration’s final environmental review. 

In plans released on the campaign trail, Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris vowed to reverse the Trump administration’s rollback of numerous protected sites and to give tribes a greater role in managing public lands.  

The sun sets at Oak Flat on Jan. 10. The trees and the rare edible acorns they produce have long been a crucial part of some

The sun sets at Oak Flat on Jan. 10. The trees and the rare edible acorns they produce have long been a crucial part of some religious and spiritual ceremonies for the Apache people.

For generations, the Apache people have held religious and cultural ceremonies at Oak Flat, known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel in the native language. The area, to the northeast of Phoenix, is home to burial sites and ancient petroglyphs. And the cliffs at nearby Apache Leap to the west is where tribal legend has it that Apache warriors in the late 1800s jumped off an escarpment to their deaths instead of surrendering to advancing U.S. troops. 

To this day, Apaches return to Oak Flat to pray, hold coming-of-age Sunrise Dance ceremonies for young women, and gather medicinal plants and acorns from old-growth Emery oak trees. Its listing on the National Register of Historic Places notes that “historical documentation, Apache oral history, and the archaeological sites make it clear that Chi’chil Bildagoteel is an important feature of the Western Apache landscape as a sacred site, as a source of supernatural power, and as a staple in their traditional lifeway.”

The Resolution copper mine would wipe most of Oak Flat off the map. Using an underground mining technique called panel caving, the company plans to extract some 40 billion pounds of copper valued at more than $100 billion, supplying as much as one-quarter of the U.S. copper demand during the life of the mine. Over time, however, the vast underground operation will collapse on itself, swallowing this historic Indigenous cultural site into a 2 mile-wide, 1,000 foot-deep crater. 

In 1955, the U.S. government that drove the Apache people off their ancestral lands and onto reservations made a new promise, declaring a 760-acre section of Oak Flat off-limits to mining. 

But that pledge began to fall apart in 1995 with the discovery of the vast Resolution copper deposit. Rio Tinto and BHP would spend the better part of the next two decades exploring the site and lobbying Congress to lift the mining ban at Oak Flat. Several bills were introduced, but all failed.

Nosie reconstructs his camp at Oak Flat on Jan. 9. In anticipation of the Trump administration finalizing a land exchang

Nosie reconstructs his camp at Oak Flat on Jan. 9. In anticipation of the Trump administration finalizing a land exchange with Resolution Copper, Apache Stronghold moved its occupation camp deeper into the Emery oak grove

Then in 2014, Arizona’s two Republican senators at the time, John McCain and Jeff Flake, manufactured a workaround, slipping a last-minute provision into the 2014 military spending bill that authorized the transfer of Oak Flat and the surrounding area to Resolution Copper, in exchange for 5,300 acres that Resolution owned scattered across Arizona. 

McCain ― who in 2014 received $7,500 in campaign contributions from Rio Tinto, more than any other member of Congress ― argued at the time the land swap was a bipartisan “compromise,” that the copper was necessary to “maintain the strength of the most technologically-advanced military in the world,” and that Apache tribal leaders “have stated the Oak Flat Campground is not a sacred site.”

Members of the San Carlos Apache have repeatedly rebutted the latter assertion. Nosie compares Oak Flat to Mount Sinai. And John R. Welch, a professor of archaeology at Simon Fraser University in Canada and former historic preservation officer for Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Tribe, told The Washington Post the area features “the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented, period, full stop.”

“I still feel that strong spiritual connection to mother earth and Usen (the Apache god) at Oak Flat,” Nosie’s granddaughter, Naelyn Pike, a teenage Apache activist, testified during a congressional hearing in Washington in March. “It is who I am and where I am free to be Apache.”

The San Carlos Apaches oppose the Resolution Copper project on religious grounds. But Nosie stresses that everyone should be concerned about the potential environmental impacts and the precedent the mine deal would set for privatizing culturally rich federal lands.

The tribe has found plenty of allies. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced companion bills in 2019 aimed at canceling the Oak Flat land swap. And numerous environmental groups have lent their support. 

“They have fought a very concerted and brave struggle to stop this,” said Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity. “Every one of us has an obligation to repair the wounds of genocide and elevate native concerns.”

The conservation group is promising to attack the Trump administration’s decision with every tool it has, and Serraglio said he has “no doubt” litigation will show the final environmental review to be deficient.

Nosie’s camp at Oak Flat on Jan. 9. Later in the day, he and fellow Apache Stronghold members moved the camp deeper int

Nosie’s camp at Oak Flat on Jan. 9. Later in the day, he and fellow Apache Stronghold members moved the camp deeper into the Emery oak grove.

Project opponents fear the Resolution copper mine will be a repeat of the recent environmental damage by Rio Tinto in western Australia. Last year, the company blasted apart ancient rock shelters at Juukan Gorge while expanding an iron ore mine. The 46,000-year-old caves were sacred to the Indigenous Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. 

Only after outrage over the damage sparked pressure from investors on Rio Tinto did its CEO and two other company executives resign. The company’s chairman, Simon Thompson, released a statement saying the firm is “determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation.”

Yet it is pressing ahead with its massive copper project at Oak Flat. 

Resolution Copper said it is “committed to preserving Native American cultural heritage” in the region and promised its operation will not damage Apache Leap. But the draft environmental impact statement that the Forest Service published in August 2019 clearly states that the mine and land exchange “has a very high potential to directly, adversely, and permanently affect numerous cultural artifacts, sacred seeps and springs, traditional ceremonial areas, resource-gathering localities, burial locations, and other places and experiences of high spiritual and other value to tribal members.”

An independent analysis concluded there is a 9% chance that the mine will cause the cliffs at Apache Leap to destabilize and collapse, The Guardian reported in November. 

Other major concerns include adverse effects for imperiled species, including the ocelot, and the potential for groundwater contamination. 

It might have been former Arizona GOP senators who slipped the Oak Flat land swap into an unrelated military spending bill, but it’s the Trump administration that has been hellbent on making the mine happen. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross met with Rio Tinto executives at least three times, according to calendars obtained by The New York Times. He also visited the mine site in early October. 

“The U.S. has a special appreciation for global enterprises like Rio Tinto, that choose to engage in projects like this one on our shores,” Ross said at the event as he applauded President Donald Trump’s “pro-growth policies.”

During a meeting with community leaders late last year, Forest Service officials disclosed that they were “receiving pressure from the highest level in the Department of Agriculture” to expedite the environmental review, The Guardian reported in November.

The Forest Service told HuffPost it does not comment on pending litigation. Resolution Copper insists that the permitting process has not been fast-tracked, but rather is “behind schedule.”  

If Trump’s team cements the land exchange before Biden takes office, it will be a fitting coda to his legacy of gutting protections for wild and culturally significant places and undermining tribal sovereignty.

In Utah, it dismantled Bears Ears National Monument, a 1.35 million-acre landscape that’s home to thousands of Native American archeological sites and is the only monument to honor tribal cultural heritage. In Alaska, it raced to sell off oil and gas leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which the Indigenous Gwich’in people of northern Alaska and Canada call “the sacred place where life begins.” And in Arizona, it bulldozed and blasted Indigenous cultural and burial sites within Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to make way for Trump’s wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“They’re all intertwined,” Nosie said. “It comes right down to money and power.” 

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