Apaches object to Forest Service review of huge copper mine

FLAGSTAFF, ARIZONA (AP) — The United States (US) Forest Service released an environmental review on Friday that paves the way for the creation of one of the largest copper mines in the US, against the wishes of a group of Apaches who have been trying for years to stop the project.

The Forest Service now has 60 days to turn over a tract of land in Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix to Resolution Copper Mining, a joint venture of the international mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP.

Environmentalists contend the Forest Service was pressured to push the review over the finish line before US President Donald Trump leaves office, complicating their efforts to reverse the land swap.

The Forest Service said that’s not true, while the mining company contends the publication already was delayed by months.

The mountainous land near Superior, Arizona, is known as Oak Flat or Chi’chilBildagoteel.

Tribal councilman Wendsler Nosie Sr speaks with Apache activists in a rally to save Oak Flat, land near Superior, Arizona, sacred to Western Apache tribes, in front of the US Capitol in Washington. PHOTO: AP

It’s where Apaches have harvested medicinal plants, held coming-of-age ceremonies and gathered acorns for generations. An area where dozens of warriors leapt to their deaths from a ridge adjacent to the proposed copper mine, rather than surrender to the US forces during westward expansion, is protected as a special management area.

A judge late Thursday denied a request from Apache Stronghold, a group led by former San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie Sr, to halt the publication until a larger question over who legally owns the land is settled.

US District Court Judge Steven Logan in Phoenix said he recognised “the anxiety that having one’s sacred land taken from them and used for purposes that run counter to their spiritual beliefs, might cause”.

But Logan said the Forest Service and other defendants also have a right to respond to the allegations, and he saw no proof they had been served. He set a hearing on January 27.

Nosie’s group alleged violations of religious freedom and constitutional rights in the federal lawsuit filed this week. It also contends the Forest Service legally can’t transfer the land because it belongs to Apaches under an 1852 treaty.

Nosie said he’s hopeful the court or politicians will take action to preserve the area as it is.