Plans to establish a large copper mine at Oak Flat, Arizona are on hold after the Biden Administration reversed a decision to allow a controversial land swap.

The US Department of Agriculture said in a statement it had “concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by tribes and [the] public and the project’s impacts to these important resources and ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law”.

The Department said it had directed the US Forest Service to withdraw the decision and conduct a “thorough review” following “significant input” from stakeholders.

The US Forest Service has since rescinded its publication of an environmental impact assessment that would allow the transfer of a parcel of land at Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, a joint mining venture owned by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP.

To date, Rio Tinto and BHP have spent $2 billion developing the project.

The environmental impact assessment was originally scheduled for December 2021 however the report was rushed to be finalised in the eleventh hour of the Trump administration.

The land exchange was set to trade approximately 980 hectares of government land in Tonto National Forest in exchange for over 2,200 hectares of conservation lands around Arizona.

Traditional Owners of the 11 Native American tribes with traditional land surrounding or within the land exchange feared the mine would compromise the sacred land of Oak Flat known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel.

Oak Flat, Arizona. Photo via Unsplash.

The Apache people have held religious and cultural ceremonies on Chi’chil Bildagoteel for centuries; the site is home to Apache burial grounds, petroglyphs and medicinal plants, with sites dating back 1,500 years.

“They are just attempting a temporary strategic retreat, they still intend to try and give away our sacred land,” said Apache Stronghold leader and former San Carlos Apache Tribal Chair Dr Wendsler Nosie Sr in a statement.

The Apache Stronghold attorney representing the San Carlos Apache, Luke Goodrich, said the US Government knows the destruction of Oak Flat violates federal law.

“It knows it can’t justify it in court, so it is retreating temporarily,” he said.

“But a temporary retreat doesn’t solve the problem.

“Oak Flat still needs legal protection; the government is still planning on the transfer and destruction of Oak Flat.”

The Apache Stronghold statement said Oak Flat is “still on death row” and that the company will “still move to their goal of repeating their Juukan Gorge travesty at Oak Flat”.

Another tribe with connection to the area, the White Mountain Apache Tribe, released a statement to NIT in opposition of the proposed Resolution Copper mine and in support of the Apache Stronghold.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe said Oak Flat is an “integral part of the ancestral homelands” of the Western Apache, Yavapai, Hopi, Zuni and Tohono O’odham peoples and that the destruction of national forest land and water does not benefit the American people.

“It only serves foreign mining interests who will leave our country a polluted site for centuries to come.”

“The Land Exchange Act did not consider the long-term environmental impact the mine would produce before it was enacted,” the statement said.

“The mine will also desecrate and destroy Apache sacred springs and waters and will eradicate forever our traditional use of the Oak Flat cultural and religious sites and acorn gathering locations.”

The tribe also noted that Oak Flat is formally listed on the US National Register of Historic Places, and is requesting the Subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples of the United States protects and returns Oak Flat to Tonto National Forest.

By Darby Ingram