The Forest Service Ignored Apache Religion in Its Review of Oak Flat Copper Mine

The U.S. Forest Service added a hearing in Tempe, scheduled for October 10, in late September.
The U.S. Forest Service added a hearing in Tempe, scheduled for October 10, in late September. Elizabeth Whitman
Dr. Liann BigHorse stepped up to the microphone, her toddler on her left hip and her daughter beside her, and began to talk about Oak Flat, or Chi'chil Bildagoteel.

The land is sacred to the Apache, she said, standing before more than 100 people in a crowded, clammy hall in Queen Valley during a public hearing last week.

BigHorse's 9-year-old daughter wants to hold her womanhood ceremony there someday, she said. Her young son builds forts there, on the land that is central to their religion.

"Traditionally, this is the ancestral homeland of the Apache people," she said. "We go to Oak Flat all the time."

Oak Flat is also where Resolution Copper, a mining company owned by the British-Australian companies BHP and Rio Tinto, is working to build the largest underground copper mine in the world. The mine would destroy Oak Flat, which is about an hour east of Phoenix.

click to enlarge The crater. - U.S. FOREST SERVICE
The crater.
U.S. Forest Service
The mine as planned would eventually collapse into a crater nearly two miles wide and about 1,000 feet deep. It would consume vast quantities of water and forever change the flows of local seeps, springs, and streams, and require toxic tailings to be stored at a nearby facility at a to-be-determined location, posing risks to public health and safety.

The public, especially members of the San Carlos Apache, has consistently opposed the project. Nevertheless, it is still wending inexorably through the necessary legal processes and federal environmental reviews, which supposedly take public opinion into account.

Last week, public hearings in Queen Valley and Tempe unleashed an outpouring of criticism, as people voiced disgust, anger, and disappointment over the potential destruction.

Several members of the San Carlos Apache indicated they would give their lives to protect Oak Flat.

Others decried the U.S. government's role in ushering the project through what locals have come to see as a deeply flawed process.

Chief among these concerns was Oak Flat's holiness to the Apache.

Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, has likened its importance to that of Mount Sinai, where, in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic theology, Moses received the Ten Commandments. For the San Carlos Apache, Oak Flat is also a sacred burial ground, and the site of important cultural ceremonies.

"How will we tell the story of Oak Flat if it's not there?" said BigHorse, who would repeat her message later that week at a meeting in Tempe.

"This is going to affect my community for generations to come," she added. "Please think about the children when you make decisions."

click to enlarge Dr. Leann BigHorse and her daughter at the public hearing in Tempe. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Dr. Leann BigHorse and her daughter at the public hearing in Tempe.
Elizabeth Whitman

Ignoring Religion

Several people from the San Carlos Apache, including BigHorse and Nosie, said the 1,300-page draft Environmental Impact Statement published by the Forest Service in August ignored Oak Flat's religious significance.

BigHorse's 15-year-old niece, Baase Pike, who held part of her womanhood ceremony at Oak Flat, quickly debunked the claim in the draft that Oak Flat's importance to the San Carlos Apache is merely "historic."

"I'm here, and I'm going to have children, and I'm going to have grandchildren who are going to be there," she said in Queen Valley. She addressed Neil Bosworth, who as supervisor of the Tonto National Forest is a key decision-maker for the project. "I know, Neil, you could do something about it. But you're not going to do anything about it," she said.

"When I'm older, I'm going take your job," she finished, to cheers and claps.

Nosie, the former San Carlos Apache chairman, who is also Pike's grandfather, criticized the draft Environmental Impact Statement for failing to mention religion or take it into account.

Asked about the religious aspects of Oak Flat, Bosworth told Phoenix New Times he wanted "to look into it a little bit more."

“I actually texted our project leader about the religious aspect, because I hadn’t heard that from them," he said, before wading into a meandering explanation for the oversight. "I’m not sure ... if we missed it," he said.

Now that those concerns were aired, "I want to include it; I want it part of the record," he said.

At both meetings, Nosie announced his intention to move to Oak Flat for good. If the Forest Service or Resolution Copper wanted him to move, they'd have to put him in jail, he said.

"I'm going to fulfill the dream of my people," he said. "I'm going home."

Nosie plans to move some time in November, he told New Times after the Tempe meeting. When the first winter wind comes, usually in the first week of November, tribal leaders would bless him to go to Oak Flat.

He will not be alone.

Sandra Rambler, sister of the tribe's current chairman, Terry Rambler, told the audience at Queen Valley that she would join him.

"That's our church. That's our way of life," she said of Oak Flat. "When the bulldozer comes, if that's the way I go, that's my destiny." 

click to enlarge Scott Tressler of the Arizona Mining Association looks on as Sandra Rambler of the San Carlos Apache finishes speaking at the public hearing in Tempe on October 10, 2019. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
Scott Tressler of the Arizona Mining Association looks on as Sandra Rambler of the San Carlos Apache finishes speaking at the public hearing in Tempe on October 10, 2019.
Elizabeth Whitman

'I Can't Say No to a Mine'

The hearings last week were two out of six hosted by the Forest Service as part of the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to gather public input on major projects involving public land and to study the environmental, social, and economic impacts of those projects.

In August, as part of the NEPA process, the Tonto National Forest released the draft Environmental Impact Statement, which laid out in an understated way the devastation of the proposed mine and five alternatives to it, including the option of not allowing the mine to happen at all.

Bosworth, who as the supervisor is charged with picking one of those options, said that the latter option is not actually an option.

"According to Forest Service policy, I can't say no to a mine, per the 1872 mining law," Bosworth told New Times after the Queen Valley meeting. Instead, he said, the federal agency could "implement mitigation measures ... to mitigate the effects" of the mine.

It is difficult to imagine, though, how a crater two miles wide and some 1,000 feet deep could possibly be "mitigated."

In August, in a case involving a copper mine in southern Arizona, a federal judge ruled that the Forest Service can, in fact, say no to a mine. Bosworth acknowledged the decision, but when asked whether it could give him leeway to decide against Resolution Copper's proposed mine, he said he couldn't comment on pending litigation.

Complicating this proposal is a land exchange finagled by the late Senator John McCain and by former Senator Jon Kyl. During last week's meetings, commenters excoriated the deal as greedy and corrupt.

The deal, squeezed at the 11th hour into the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, stipulates that the federal government hand over 2,422 acres of Oak Flat in exchange for 5,344 acres of Resolution Copper land elsewhere.

Moreover, the law demands that the U.S. government hand over the coveted land "not later than 60 days" after the publication of the final Environmental Impact Statement, which the Forest Service estimates will come in summer 2020.

click to enlarge More than 100 people packed into the room in Queen Valley on October 8, 2019. - ELIZABETH WHITMAN
More than 100 people packed into the room in Queen Valley on October 8, 2019.
Elizabeth Whitman
Bosworth said he could not reject something mandated by Congress.

"There's no decision to be made," he said. "I can't say no to that." The land exchange is built into the NEPA process, he said, and once it reaches that milestone, Oak Flat will become private land.

In response to detailed questions from New Times, Dan Blondeau, a spokesperson for Resolution Copper, said via email that the company had sought and received feedback from the public on its proposed mine. He provided non-answers to questions about how the company could justify proceeding with the mine, given clear public opposition and numerous violations of indigenous rights.

"We will comply with all laws related to Native American cultural and sacred sites, and the permitting process requires formal consultation between the US government and the governments of Native American tribes," he wrote, then touted an employment program involving tribal members and archaeology that had little to do with protecting Oak Flat.

"Also, Resolution Copper funds a Tribal Monitor Program hosted by the USDA Forest Service, which is designed to train and employ tribal members in survey work identifying and recording traditional cultural locations alongside archaeologists," he wrote.

Locals aren't buying it — not the claims about following laws or soliciting public input, nor the Forest Service's professed inability to say no to a mine.

At the Tempe and Queen Valley hearings, members of the public decried NEPA as a sham process that was being used to rubber stamp "an abomination," as one activist, Sandy Bahr, described the proposed mine.

Bahr, head of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, said the draft Environmental Impact Statement was "deficient" in a number of ways, particularly in its choice of such a destructive mining method.

"There is no God-given right to squeeze every bit of copper out of that place," she said. Then she turned to face Bosworth. "I think you can say no to this," she said.
KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Elizabeth Whitman was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times from March 2019 to April 2020.