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Biden administration pauses transfer of holy Native American land to mining firm

Annette McGivney
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Sipa USA/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Sipa USA/Alamy

The Biden administration has put the brakes on a controversial land exchange that would have given a sacred Native American site to a multinational mining company by 11 March.

Parts of the handover had been rushed to completion in the waning days of the Trump administration, in an effort to give Resolution Copper control over Arizona’s Oak Flat region before or soon after Trump left office. Oak Flat sits atop one of the largest untapped copper deposits in the world, estimated to be worth more than $1bn.

Now the government “has concluded that additional time is necessary to understand concerns raised by the Tribes and the public and the project’s impacts to these important resources”, according to a statement by the US Forest Service, which is currently in charge of Oak Flat.

The agency also noted it was following a recent memorandum from Joe Biden encouraging tribal consultation on federal decisions and “strengthening nation to nation relationships”. The Forest Service estimated it would take “several months” to complete the consultations before the land transfer could possibly move forward.

Called Chi’chil Bildagoteel in Apache, Oak Flat, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its spiritual and cultural significance to at least a dozen south-west Native American tribes. It contains hundreds of indigenous archaeological sites dating back 1,500 years.

“This is the right move,” said Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe. The government “failed to follow the law in the preparation of a sham environmental impact statement that was used to justify trading away our sacred land to wealthy foreign mining companies”.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe currently has a lawsuit pending in US district court in Phoenix that seeks to stop the land transfer, which would have given the 2,422-acre Oak Flat parcel to Resolution Copper in exchange for land elsewhere in the state.

While tribes and environmental groups celebrated the Forest Service announcement, they noted the threat of losing Oak Flat remains. “Oak Flat is still on death row,” said Michael Nixon, an attorney for the indigenous activist group Apache Stronghold. “The Forest Service is just changing the execution date.”

The Oak Flat campground outside of Globe, Arizona.
The Oak Flat campground outside of Globe, Arizona. Photograph: REUTERS/Alamy

Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit in US district court in January arguing that the potential destruction of Oak Flat infringes on Native Americans’ ability to practice their religion. The Forest Service’s announcement on Monday, that it was withdrawing an environmental approval that was published in January, came just six hours before the agency was required to respond to an appeal filed by Apache Stronghold seeking an emergency injunction on the land exchange.

A representative for Resolution Copper said that the company “is evaluating the Forest Service’s decision” and is “committed to ongoing consultation with Native American Tribes and local communities”.

The land transfer to Resolution Copper – a partnership of the Anglo-Australian mining firms Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton – was authorized unbeknownst to tribes in 2014.

In its statement, the Forest Service said that because of legal mandates dictating the land exchange, “long-term protection of the site will likely require an act of Congress”.

Such a measure is ready to go, according to the Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva, who said he plans to reintroduce his Save Oak Flat Act “in the coming days”. The bill calls for the repeal of the land exchange legislation and was previously co-sponsored in the Senate by Bernie Sanders.

“This fight has never been about just one site,” said Grijalva, who chairs the House natural resources committee. “It’s about ending the cycle of ignoring tribal input whenever it suits polluters.”

Now that the clock has been paused and the ball passed to Congress, Grijalva is hopeful a final resolution is in sight with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate. “The Biden administration is doing the right thing with this reset,” he said. “I intend to make sure this needless controversy is settled on the side of justice once and for all.”

Last month, the independent Advisory Council on Historic Preservation announced it would not give its approval to the Forest Service’s mining-damage mitigation plan. It noted the Forest Service had determined the mine would not only destroy Oak Flat but also “potentially affect more than 500 sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places”.