Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Tammy Baldwin introduced legislation this week to stop the transfer of federal land to a foreign-owned corporation, which plans to develop the largest copper mine in North America. The land, known as Oak Flat, is located in the Tonto National Forest and has significant religious and cultural value to Apaches, Yavapais, and other Native Americans in the region.
The night before voting to approve the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Sen. John McCain slipped in a provision referred to as Section 3003 that approved the transfer of public lands, Oak Flat and nearby Tonto National Forest lands, to private corporations Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of the corporations, intends to use the land to construct a block cave mine, which would destroy the sacred Oak Flat area and create a crater up to two miles long.
“Too many times our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the profits of huge corporations put ahead of their sovereign rights,” Sanders said. “It is wrong that a backroom deal in Washington could lead to the destruction of a sacred area that is so important to so many. We must defend the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are standing in opposition to this giveaway of our natural resources to foreign corporations.”
The Tonto National Forest in southeastern Arizona was established in 1905 from the ancestral homelands of the Tonto Apache and other Native Americans who were forcibly removed at gunpoint from the Oak Flat area by the U.S. Army in the 1880s. The Apaches were held as prisoners of war until the early 1900s.
Because of their religious and cultural value, Oak Flat and the Tonto National Forest are supposed to be protected under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Save Oak Flat Act would repeal Section 3003 and prevent the transfer of approximately 2422 acres of Forest Service land to Resolution Copper, which plans to remove at least one cubic mile of ore that sits 7,000ft beneath the Earth’s surface.
Strongly opposed by Native American tribes nationwide, Section 3003 sets a dangerous legal precedent for the lack of protection concerning sacred tribal areas located on federal lands. Besides destroying forever a beautiful place of worship, the mining project will greatly impact the local water supply by draining resources and polluting the underlying aquifer and drinking water.
“The fight to save Oak Flat will succeed,” said Randi Spivak, public lands director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “People from across the country, and even around the world, are outraged by what’s happened with Oak Flat and won’t stand by to see our public lands and American Indian sacred sites be destroyed for profits.”
In exchange for destroying a Native American place of worship and threatening our First Americans’ traditions and ways of life, Rio Tinto P.L.C. and its subsidiary Resolution Copper, will reap tens of billions of dollars in U.S. taxpayer assets from the land grab. To add insult to injury, Resolution Copper stated the copper ore mined will likely be shipped out of the U.S.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva introduced the bill in the House of Representatives earlier this year, and the legislation currently has 36 bipartisan co-sponsors. On Wednesday, the signatures of over a million people were submitted in favor of saving Oak Flat. The signatures were turned in ahead of the House Natural Resources Committee forum on protecting sacred American Indian sites.
“Oak Flat should be protected, not plundered,” asserted Nick Kimbrell, a senior campaigner with Avaaz. “Over a million people in the U.S. and around the world are calling on Congress to stop this act of cultural vandalism and set a precedent for governments everywhere to protect native peoples and their sacred sites.”