MAC: Mines and Communities

USA: Oak Flat designation a win for opponents of Resolution Copper

Published by MAC on 2016-03-18
Source: Cronkite News, Indian Country Today

Oak Flat designation a win for mine opponents, but fight may continue

Jessica Swarner

Cronkite News 

14 March 2016

WASHINGTON – Opponents of a proposed copper mine at the Oak Flat campground scored a point when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places this month – but while they won the battle, they haven’t won the war.

While Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Prescott, said in a prepared statement that the designation is aimed at “sabotaging an important mining effort,” a National Register official said Monday that the listing is a “label that yes, it (Oak Flat) is in fact a historic resource,” but it doesn’t necessarily prevent mining at the site.

Paul Lusignan, a historian for the National Register, said the mine’s owners, Resolution Copper, would have had to determine whether the site had historical significance as part of the National Environmental Policy Act review of the project.

The government’s March 4 determination that Oak Flat is historic removes that step from NEPA, he said, but adds another layer of review because there are now historic resources that must be taken into account.

“Before a federal agency can take any actions, they have to evaluate effects on any property listed on the National Register or eligible for it,” he said.

The historic resources at Oak Flat include sites that the San Carlos Apache consider sacred, said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe and a member of the group Apache Stronghold which has been fighting the mine.

Nosie acknowledged that the historic listing for the site – identified by the National Register as the Chi’chil Bildagoteel Historic District – will not stop the mine, but he welcomed it as a validation of his group’s claims.”

“To the rest of Congress and the rest of the doubters, it proves that this place is unique for a lot of reasons,” Nosie said Monday. “We know it’s not a victory, we know it’s a stepping stone for us to step up.”

Nosie said he hopes the listing will bring national attention to the issue and boost support for bills in the House and Senate to reverse the land exchange that cleared the way for the Resolution Copper project.

After years of failing to pass the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, the House and Senate slipped the language through in December 2014 as an amendment to a defense funding bill.

The act calls for the government to give about 2,400 acres of copper-rich federally owned land, including Oak Flat, to Resolution Copper in exchange for another 5,000 acres of land owned by the company in southeast Arizona.

The mining company has said the move will create thousands of jobs in southeast Arizona and would add billions of dollars to the state’s economy over its proposed 60-year lifespan. But critics have charged that it would damage environmental and historic sites in the process.

Calls seeking comment from Resolution Copper on the historic designation were not immediately returned Monday. But Gosar made no secret of his opinion in a statement released last week.

“Oak Flat has never been a sacred site, as confirmed by the local tribe’s own former historian,” he said, referring to an opinion written by San Carlos Apache Dale Miles.

“Yet, Obama’s minions are hell-bent on sabotaging an important mining effort by listing a small, public campground 20 miles away from the nearest tribe’s reservation as a historic site,” Gosar’s statement said.

Nosie called Gosar’s statements attacks on his tribe’s spirituality.

Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the historic listing is “embarrassing” for mine supporters because it undermines their argument that the site has no spiritual significance.

“Most importantly, it confirms the central sacred importance to the Apache,” Silver said. “Their (opponents’) whole thing is it’s not important to the Apache, it’s fake – well it’s not.”

Nosie said he hopes the attention can boost support for bills by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, that would reverse the land-exchange deal.

Neither Grijalva’s bill, introduced in June, nor Sanders’, which was introduced in November, has received a hearing yet. But Jane Sanders, wife of the Democratic presidential hopeful, assured tribal leaders during a visit to Oak Flat on Sunday that she and her husband would continue to fight to conserve the land.

Walking to Save Oak Flat

Marc Dadigan

7 March 2016

Amelia Garcia’s tribe, the Chihene Nde of New Mexico, are neighbors to the San Carlos Apache, and they too have traditional ties to the sacred land at the Oak Flat campground in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.

“We went there and gathered acorns, gathered medicine plants and they had sunrise ceremonies,” Garcia said. “So when they passed that bill, we also filed a repeal against it because we know what the (San Carlos Apache) are fighting for.”

Thus Garcia and a few other grassroots collaborators organized the Walk to Save Oak Flat, which drew more than 100 indigenous supporters and allies to the California State Capitol Building Saturday, February 27 to honor the one year anniversary of the occupation of Oak Flat to protect it from a proposed mining project.

Known as Chich’il Biłdagoteel to the San Carlos Apache, the sacred lands of Oak Flat were sold to international mining conglomerates HP Billiton and Rio Tonto in December 2014 through the Southeast Land Exchange and Conservation Act. This act, which transfers 2,400 acres of Oak Flat to the mining companies in exchange for 5,400 acres of corporate-owned land, was sneaked in as a rider on the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act.

The passage of the bill led to protests and condemnations of the rider’s sponsors Sen. John McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), and in February 2015, members of the San Carlos Apache nation and other allies began an occupation of Oak Flat, declaring the planned copper mining as a threat to their religious practices and access to sacred lands.

After arriving at Southside Park in Sacramento, Aztecs dancers prayed, drummed and danced in support of the San Carlos Apache, who are fighting to protect the sacred lands of Oak Flat from the Resolution Copper company’s mining plans.

After gathering at the Capitol, the supporters, including members of two local Aztec dance groups, walked to Southside Park in Sacramento for prayers, speeches and dancing. Speakers urged the people to continue to mobilize, educate themselves and get out the vote, noting that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has co-sponsored a bill that would repeal the sale of Oak Flat.

“All these other religions are from somewhere else, not here. The only religions that have sacred sites in this country are the Native people, which means destruction of places like Oak Flat is discrimination on a religious basis,” said Francisco Dominguez Tarahumara. “We don’t have the political power or the legal power, but we have people power, and we’re in the right in this situation.”

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