PHOENIX (AP) — A group of San Carlos Apache Nation elders gathered Thursday to urge Arizona Senator Mark Kelly to support legislation that will prevent the lands they call sacred from being torn apart for a huge copper mine.
Some high school students from Brophy College Preparatory showed up to support the half-dozen alumni during the protest outside the Democratic senator’s office in Phoenix to protect the land known as Oak Flat.
“We want the senator’s aides to know that we oppose the land transfer,” said Sandra Rambler, an elder from the tribe. “My ancestors are buried at Oak Flat.”
In a statement from Washington, where the Senate is in session, Kelly did not state a clear position.
“Mining is an important part of Arizona history and a major contributor to our economy,” Kelly said Thursday. “I continue to assess the environmental impacts of this and any similar project. I met and heard from leaders of the San Carlos Apache tribe, local elected officials and people on both sides of the issue.
Complementary bills in the House and Senate seek to reverse a land swap that would allow development of the mine. The Senate bill that tribal members want Kelly to support was referred to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, but did not go to a vote.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, has so far delayed the transfer by withdrawing the environmental review that will allow further consultation with the tribes.
Tribal members are awaiting a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on the federal lawsuit the nonprofit Apache Stronghold filed in January in a bid to permanently block the pending land swap . Apache Stronghold argued its case in appeals court in October.
The Apaches call the mountainous area Chi’chil Bildagoteel. The land near the community of Superior in central Arizona has ancient oak groves and traditional plants that tribesmen believe are essential to their religion and culture.
Lawyers for the US Forest Service counter that the land belongs to the United States.
Governor Doug Ducey and Arizona business leaders support the project, which would be one of the largest copper mines in the United States. It is expected to have an impact of $61 billion over 60 years and employ up to 1,500 people.
In February, a federal judge denied a request by Apache Stronghold to stop the US Forest Service from transferring the land to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto.
Andrew Lye, project manager for Resolution Copper, said Thursday that the company is “committed to ongoing engagement with Native American tribes as we follow the licensing process established by the US government.”
“The tribes have already significantly influenced the project approach, including the relocation of key project facilities and infrastructure to protect specific traditional cultural assets, the avoidance of medicinal plants, springs and ancestral sites, placing the area culturally important part of Apache Leap under permanent protection,” Lye said.
Resolution Copper said it would not deny Apaches access to Oak Flat after receiving the land and as long as it is safe. But the project would end up engulfing the site in a deep abyss, which would ultimately make any visit impossible.