The U.S. Forest Service has been holding public meetings regarding the fate of two sites of great cultural significance to Arizona tribes – Apache Leap and Oak Flat. The two areas are in rugged hills about 70 miles east of Phoenix. The next meeting will be held on Tuesday, April 4 in Superior, Arizona, to update “interested members of the public” on the status of the Forest Service’s management plan for the Apache Leap Special Management Area, according to a release issued March 17. The meeting will take place from 5 to 8 p.m. in the Superior High School located at 100 Mary Drive.
The land swap has already been approved by Congress; it was an amendment to a “must-pass” national defense authorization bill enacted in late 2014. The legislation authorized an exchange of more than 2,400 acres of Tonto National Forest lands for other land owned by Resolution Copper Mining Company, a joint venture of British-Australian mining corporations Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. The mine will eventually grow to some 11 square miles, making it one of the largest copper mines in the U.S.
Tonto National Forest is spearheading the process of developing a management plan for the 807-acre site, which includes Apache Leap and the Oak Flat Campground. Both sites hold great cultural importance for at least nine Arizona and New Mexico tribes, including the San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache Tribes. For centuries, women have harvested the acorns from the large oak trees on the site, and Apache people go there to pray, San Carlos Apache Chairman Terry Rambler told The New York Times in 2015.
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The legislation that approved the land exchange requires the Forest Service “to preserve the natural character of Apache Leap; to allow for traditional use by Native American people; and to protect and conserve cultural and archaeological resources of the area.” The Forest Service is also developing an environmental impact statement to determine the amount of alteration to the area from the mine.
However, an Apache activist group, Apache Stronghold, has been opposing the land swap and the mine. Members of the grassroots organization have occupied the campground for the past three years. At least two wikieups and a pergola were constructed, and people live at the site in shifts. Dominating the camp: the largest oak tree in the site, estimated to be about 600 to 700 years old.
“America is destroying these places that give us life,” says Wendsler Nosie Sr., former San Carlos Apache chairman and a longtime Native rights activist. He says that Apache Stronghold and their supporters are simply reclaiming what is theirs. “This is where God touched the world for us,” he says to a group of Native and non-Native activists, including representatives of Veterans for Peace, at a March 25 gathering. “Those roots we have tie us to this land.”
“We were not allowed to come back here to our sacred sites after we were placed in the concentration camp at San Carlos [which later became the tribe’s reservation],” Nosie says. “We can show you where the snipers hid to shoot people who were trying to leave the San Carlos reservation.”
He says that the group is devising new strategies to ultimately stop the mine, which many experts say will cause Oak Flat to subside into the earth, rendering it useless and even dangerous. A recent study completed by L. Everett & Associates, a California environmental consulting firm, states that there is “growing evidence that Apache Leap Tuff [one of three groundwater zones in the area] will be at least partially dewatered,” causing the springs that support Oak Flat’s riparian habitat to dry up. That has residents in nearby Top of the World, a community about 10 miles east of Oak Flat, worried that their wells will go dry.
In August 2016, the Forest Service gave approval for Resolution Copper to gather data and create an environmental assessment to “help evaluate possible construction of a large tailings storage facility on National Forest Lands,” according to a statement. The proposed facility would be about 6,500 acres in size in an area about 6 miles northwest of Superior, of which 4,400 acres would be on forest land. However, John Skaggs, spokesman for Tonto National Forest, noted in an email to ICMN that no decision has yet been made about the dump’s location.
The L. Everett report had something to say about the tailings storage, too: “The tailings would fill the Rose Bowl 1,800 times.” And the waste caused from Resolution’s plan to engage in block mining, which requires boring underground and setting off charges to release the copper ore underneath Oak Flat, oftentimes concentrates radioactive materials, such as uranium and thorium, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Concentrated radionuclides have already been found in two other Arizona mines, according to the EPA report.
With so much at stake, Nosie says, he feels that more people should step forward: “You will all have to stand up to end this,” Nosie told the group. “Our individual rights are being attacked by our own country. It’s not just a Native issue—they can’t just leave it to Indians any longer.”