San Carlos Apache tribal member Wendsler Nosie Sr has been camping in a teepee since January at a campground in the Oak Flat of south-eastern Arizona, a vast high desert oasis dotted with ancient oak groves and soaring rock spires.
It is a demonstration in defense of the “holy land” where for centuries the Apache have prayed and conducted ceremonies.
A dozen Native American tribes in the south-west have close cultural links to Oak Flat. But, as the Guardian has learned, the Trump administration has embarked on a rapid attempt in its waning days to pass control of the region to a mining corporation linked to the destruction of an Aboriginal site in Australia.
We were in the fourth quarter and there were two minutes left in the match. And then Trump lied, but we’ve just got one minute left now,’ said Nosie, who was a high school football quarterback. “To fight this, everybody has to mobilize now.”
Local leaders said the drive was happening in a meeting with environmental groups because, according to notes from the meeting seen by the Guardian, “we are getting pressure from the highest level at the Department of Agriculture.” The US Forest Service, which is in charge of Oak Flat, is overseen by the state.
Officials are hurrying through a host of environmentally damaging projects that will favor business interests as the curtain closes on the Trump age. This includes opening the national Arctic wildlife refuge to the exploration of oil and gas and scaling back restrictions on endangered gray wolves.
A business named Resolution Copper and its two Anglo-Australian parent companies, the mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP, will be beneficiaries at Oak Flat.
Raúl Grijalva, the Democratic Arizona delegate, said, “The Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a hasty job just to take care of Rio Tinto.” And the fact that Covid is doing it makes it even more disgusting. Trump and Rio Tinto know the reaction of the tribes will be very powerful and public under normal conditions, but right now the tribes are trying to save their people.
Since 1995, when what is believed to be one of the world’s largest copper reserves was found 7,000 feet below Oak Flat, a war against Resolution Copper has raged against environmental and indigenous groups.
Oak Flat includes several indigenous archaeological sites dating back 1,500 years, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. If the mine continues as scheduled, 11 square miles, including Apache burial grounds, religious sites, petroglyphs and medicinal plants, will be consumed.
Resolution aims to mine 1.4 million tons of copper ore by blasting and dragging it out into tunnels under the surface. A crater measured to be 1,000 feet deep and almost two miles long will be left behind until all of the ore is sucked out.
A 400ft-high escarpment called Apache Leap that is vulnerable to the planned mine is also concerned. Named for Apache warriors who jumped off the cliff in the late 1800s to prevent US army capture, the site has great historical significance for the people of Apache, and memorializes tribal defeats when their homeland was invaded by European immigrants.
On behalf of the Arizona Mining Reform Alliance, an independent study carried out concluded that there is a 9 percent risk the mine’s crater could hit and catastrophically destabilize Apache Leap.
While mining at Oak Flat has always been resisted by the San Carlos Apache and other tribes, there are no federal laws granting Native Americans ownership over ancestral lands that are beyond reservation limits.
In 2014, when a plan to swap federally owned Oak Flat for private property owned by Resolution Copper was included in a defense spending bill at the last minute, tribes were blindsided. This inclusion was at the request of four members of Congress from Arizona who sponsored the mining proposals of Resolution; President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.
Resolution Copper has stated that it takes all appropriate care for the environment and has sought input from tribes. “There have been hundreds of consultations with Native American tribes on the Resolution Copper project,” project director Andrew Lye wrote in an email.
“As with all tribes, Resolution Copper would welcome the chance to build a relationship with the San Carlos Apache tribe for more collaborative dialogue and eventually look for ways to partner for mutual benefit,” he added.
To ensure that the mine’s crater does not get too close to the sacred cliff, Resolution has vowed to track seismic activity around Apache Leap. Lye also points to a host of company-funded community outreach projects to assist the San Carlos Apache and other tribes. This includes a surveillance program where archaeologists train tribal members to help recognize indigenous artifacts that are culturally significant.
Yet the recent past of one of the parent companies, Rio Tinto, has given cause for concern.
The Forest Service has been undertaking an environmental review of the planned mine and the controversial land swap for the last 6 years. In the hope that the mine could be stopped from going forward or substantially scaled back, several tribes and environmental organizations have expressed their opposition.
Last May, in Juukan Gorge, in western Australia, Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000-year-old sacred Aboriginal site. Rio Tinto’s CEO and two other top executives resigned in September after widespread public outrage and investor protest over the devastation.
Simon Thompson, chairman of Rio Tinto, said in a statement following the resignations, “What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never happens again at a Rio Tinto operation.”
The land exchange must occur within 60 days once the final Oak Flat environmental assessment is issued. Ownership of Oak Flat could be passed to Resolution Copper before the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20.
“We are looking at the destruction of some of the most important cultural and historical sites of the Apache with this project,” said Kathryn Leonard, the historic preservation officer of the state of Arizona. She clarified that federal historic preservation laws concentrate on ameliorating harms rather than blocking a construction entirely.
To avoid this degree of destruction, our preservation laws are not set up. It’s heavily weighing on me.’
Grijalva, who chairs the Natural Resources Committee of the House, asked the Forest Service to clarify the explanation for the expedited timetable, but his staff had not obtained any clarification as of late last week. Environmental organizations are in a position to appeal the court’s ruling, while Grijalva and Senator Bernie Sanders have tabled a bill asking for the transfer of land to be revoked.
If the land swap happens, it’ll be hard to roll back,” Grijalva said.” That’s why it’s not possible to hurry this. Because of what is at stake, the Forest Service must do its due diligence. The harm is irreparable.