Save Oak Flat Act introduced to protect Apache religious and sacred areas


In January, Congressman Raul M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced the Save Oak Flat Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate to repeal a non-germane rider tucked into a defense bill passed in the waning days of the 113th Congress.

The rider (Section 3003 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015) transferred 2,422 acres of Tonto National Forest land in Arizona, including 740 acres of the Tribal sacred Oak Flat area listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property, to foreign mining companies, Rio Tinto PLC and BHP Billiton Ltd. through their joint venture Resolution Copper. They seek to develop the largest copper mine in North America.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe, by Council Resolution AP-15-086, opposed Section 3003 of the NDAA. Hundreds of tribal governments, tribal organizations and concerned citizens across the country joined with the Tribe and fought the land transfer before Congress. Because of this opposition, House of Representatives leadership twice pulled the bill from consideration because it lacked the votes for passage during the 113th Congress. The Senate also refused to move the bill forward.

San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler detailed the importance of the area, noting, “Oak Flat is a holy site and an area of irreplaceable beauty. Our Elders teach us that the strength of our prayers and ceremonies depend on the land’s health and our ability to treat everything with respect. We have always lived by these prayers. To this day, our lives depend on them. Apache people have lived, prayed, and died in the Oak Flat Area since time immemorial.”

A 2015 ethnographic and ethnohistoric study documented the many tribes in the region with significant cultural and archeological ties to the Oak Flat area, and these tribal members continue to maintain strong connections to the land.

Resolution Copper’s project would irreversibly destroy the Oak Flat area. The company plans call for a 7,000-foot deep tunnel that could be used to extract one cubic mile of copper ore. One cubic mile of ore could fill 1,400 football stadiums and would leave a void that will eventually collapse and create a 2-mile wide, open pit that will be visible from outer space.

The Tribe and nearby communities are also concerned with possible damage to the region’s water quality and water supply. Copper is one of the most water-intensive forms of mining. The block cave mining technique further intensifies the need for water and exacerbates the region’s already limited water resources.

Resolution Copper has long touted alleged economic benefits of mining at Oak Flat.

However, according to an economic study performed by Power Consulting, Inc., between 1974 and 1997, copper production in Arizona rose by 73 percent, but the workforce was cut by 56 percent.

Resolution Copper has also misrepresented the local economic benefits of the mining project. The Powers study analyzed the economic benefits locally (within the copper triangle) and, applying Resolution Copper’s economic [impact], found that only 342 direct mining jobs would be created locally.

In closing, Rambler issued the following statement:

“By repealing the midnight approval of the land transfer, the Save Oak Flat Act will protect Native American religions and our sacred grounds, it will preserve clean drinking water for our region, and it will defend the voice of the hundreds of thousands of Americans who stood in opposition to this give away of American resources. I urge all members of Congress to support the Save Oak Flat Act and work to move this bill to final passage.”

The House bill is cosponsored by Reps. Pete Aguilar (D-Calif.), Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon), Diane DeGette (D-Colo.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Walter Jones (R-N.C.), Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), Grace Napolitano (D-Calif.), Gregorio Sablan (D-CNMI), Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.), Jimmy Gomez (D-Calif.), Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.), Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), Tom Cole (R-Okla.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), Gwen Moore (D-Wisc.) and Denny Heck (D-Wash.). The House version is available online at naturalresources.house.gov/legislation/bills/save-oak-flat-act-.

The Senate bill is cosponsored by Sens. Warren, Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Ron Wyden (D- Oregon), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Submitted by the San Carlos Apache Tribal Administration.

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