The effort to engineer a land swap for a massive copper mine has hit repeated setbacks, mostly due to the opposition of the San Carlos Apache Tribe crusading to protect land it considers sacred.
Bill sponsor Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Prescott) recently withdrew HR 687 to round up more votes, after hearings in which the tribe opposed the bill based on the possible impact on Oak Flat, a popular camping and climbing area near Superior the tribe considers sacred. The Roundup had previously mistakenly reported that the House had adopted the land swap bill. Actually, the House had approved several amendments and was prepared to vote before the recent government shutdown stalled further action.
Opposition to the land trade in both the House and Senate built during the delay. The plan would trade to an international mining company 2,400 acres near Superior for some 5,300 acres of environmentally sensitive land elsewhere in the state. Resolution Copper wants to use mining machines to tunnel through a body of copper worth an estimated $61 billion, enough to provide 25 percent of the nation’s copper supply for the next 50 years. The company says the mining operation would produce 1,400 jobs, although critics contest the estimate.
The mining operations would occur deep underground, but would consume large amounts of groundwater and could lead to the collapse of the surface in giant sinkholes overhead, affecting a scenic landscape of boulders where many Apache go to gather traditional plants and herbs.
Opposition has stalled action on both Gosar’s bill and a similar measure in the U.S. Senate pushed by both of Arizona’s U.S. senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Flagstaff) also strongly supports the land swap, a rare example of bipartisanship in the bitterly divided Congress. Kirkpatrick’s district includes Southern Gila County.
Gosar, who represents Northern Gila County in Congress, said, “I am disappointed that a mine of national significance that would have employed so many Native Americans was opposed by the leadership of the San Carlos Apache Tribe — a tribe plagued with excessively high unemployment and poverty. It is inexplicable decisions like this that directly result in the continued poverty of the tribe and the deterioration of the economic prospects of the town of Superior and the entire state of Arizona.”
However, at hearings in Washington, San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler staunchly opposed the land trade, saying the tribe uses the area for ceremonial dances and the gathering of medicinal plants. He compared its significance for his people to that of Mount Sinai for Christians.
“Once it gets desecrated, it really infringes on our Apache way of life, which is our freedom of religion,” Rambler said in testimony to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
In a letter to the committee, Resolution Copper project director Andrew Taplin said the company would go through all environmental review procedures for the project and that the mine would help the area’s economy.
But officials with the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management both testified against the bill in its current form. The bill would fast track the land swap so it could take place before the Forest Service could actually finish the environmental review and consultations with Native American groups.
Resolution Copper officials have said they will have to go through the entire environmental review process, regardless of when the land is exchanged, because the mine will still be surrounded by Tonto National Forest.
Jointly owned by BHP Billiton of Australia and British firm Rio Tinto, the mining company has already filed a plan of operations with the federal government and started a months-long review process.
Senator McCain strongly supported the land trade with a statement read into the record that said, “Arizona is the largest copper-producing state in the nation, which is why support for this legislation remains strong in my home state,” McCain’s statement said.
But Rambler said policy makers, the mining company and other officials hadn’t really consulted with the tribe. “We’re just like a check mark in the process.” He provided a list of tribes from 25 states that opposed the land exchange, citing the need to protect sacred sites.
Jack Fitzpatrick of the Cronkite News Service contributed to this article