Sometime over St. Patrick’s Day weekend, two of four ceremonial crosses erected by the people of San Carlos were defaced and two removed from the Oak Flat Campground site in what is being called a hate crime by local San Carlos Apache representatives.
The perpetrator, or perpetrators, left behind tire tracks and the remaining crosses were apparently damaged with an axe. Two ceremonial eagle feathers were also left on the ground.
Apache Stronghold, an organization resisting attempts by Resolution Copper to mine approximately 2,400 acres in a place known to the Apaches as Chi’ch’il Bildagoteel that is sacred to the local indigenous population, called on the U.S. Forest Service to find the culprits and prosecute them to the full extent of the law.
Representatives of Apache Stronghold cited the American Indian Religious Freedom Act as justification for the hate crime designation.
“This site is like a church. If this attack had happened at a church, it would be considered a crime,” Wendsler Nosie, former chairman of the San Carlos Apaches and a leader from the Apache Stronghold, said in a statement released in the wake of the incident. “A lot of people have come here to be healed from sickness and for their loved ones, asking for blessings. Throughout the year, this has been a site for families to gather and teach their children about the land. There are federal laws that are supposed to protect a place like this. We have never seen this kind of violence against us here. There needs to be accountability for this crime.”
Nosie said that a representative of Apache Stronghold discovered the damage in the afternoon of March 17, and when the response of local law enforcement was not timely, the organization contacted the Forest Service.
“We were saddened to hear of this vandalism, and Forest Service law enforcement is currently investigating,” Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth said in a statement released last week. “The Tonto National Forest takes this seriously.”
Upon hearing of the vandalism, the Forest Service immediately sent law enforcement officers to the site to examine the damage and canvass the area for witnesses. They are now asking for the public’s help to identify the individual or individuals responsible.
Oak Flat is located on public land in the Tonto National Forest and has become a symbol of the struggle between the economic benefits of mining and the use of resources in the southwest.
The site sits east of Superior and the old Magma Copper Mine, “once one of the largest copper deposits in the U.S.” according to a 2018 informational brochure released by Resolution Copper.
In order to begin operations in Oak Flat, Resolution Copper Company, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto PLC and BHP Copper, Inc., a BHP-Billiton PLC subsidiary, must first go through a complete environmental review of the mining plan through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which requires the identification of appropriate environmental protections and mitigation measures, including rigorous water studies and plans for protection of groundwater, surface water, recreation and cultural resources.
Resolution must also comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) and the American Antiquities Act.
To gain ownership of the land, Resolution Copper has proposed a land exchange for the 2,400-acre site, signing over approximately 5,300 acres of “highly sought recreational, conservation and cultural lands that will be placed under federal stewardship.”
Those properties include 7B Ranch, in Pinal County; Appleton Whitetail, in Santa Cruz County; Cave Creek, in Maricopa County; East Clear Creek, in Coconino County; and, Dripping Springs, in Gila County. The deal also extends protection to Apache Leap into perpetuity.
The project is expected to provide state and local economic benefits to the tune of $1 billion annually for at least 60 years, with the ability to provide 25 percent of the copper used in the U.S.
After 40 years, the block cave mining to 7,000 feet underground will leave a “subsidence” — or sinking — of 1,000 feet that will come to within 1,500 feet of Apache Leap, according to a project fact sheet published in 2014 and available at resolutioncopper.com/media/factsheets-reports/.
“Resolution Copper condemns the recent vandalism at Oak Flat,” Resolution Copper Communications Specialist Jonathan Ward said. “We have reached out to tribal leaders to express our sympathy and will support the U.S. Forest Service in their investigation of these disrespectful actions.”
Anyone with information about the incident can contact Officer Robert Shelton at 928-402-6250, or the Tonto National Forest main office at 602-225-5200.