New Tactic Emerges in Occupy Oak Flat Movement

In the latest effort to foil the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange, activists are asking President Obama to designate Oak Flat a national monument. The area, which is part of Tonto National Forest, is a historically significant and sacred spot for many Native American tribes, as well as a well-known rock-climbing and recreation destination.

Wendsler Nosie, San Carlos Apache district councilman and leader of the Occupy Oak Flat protest, started the online petition earlier this week. And with over 600 backers already, the number of signatures is rising quickly. This new strategy comes three weeks after protesters took over a section of the popular campground, vowing not to leave until the Federal Government protects the land.

See also: Occupy Oak Flat Refuses to Back Down in Protest Against Resolution Copper

At issue is a controversial land-exchange attached to the 2015 National Defense Spending Bill. Supporters of the deal say it would bring money and jobs to the area. Critics say it would be an all-around ecological disaster, as well as a violation of human rights and religious freedom.

The land exchange gives Resolution Copper (a subsidiary of the Australian-British mining company Rio Tinto) 2,400 acres of Oak Flat for 5,300 acres of company property. Resolution Copper plans to mine billions of dollars worth of copper from over a mile below the surface, claiming that it won't have a substantial impact on the surrounding area. (The company has admitted there will be some land subsidence but says it won't know the true extent of the impact until it finishes a series of geological surveys and tests.)

In the last decade, politicians have tried and failed multiple times to pass the land exchange as a stand-alone bill, so Noise and others see this move as evidence that the "U.S. has turned on its own native people to take away our religion, voice, and holy sites."

National Monuments provide areas with protection comparable to National Parks, though unlike the latter, monuments do not require Congressional approval. This means that Obama could unilaterally nullify the land-exchange by designating it a monument, since mining would be prohibited.

In the last six years, Obama has drawn both praise and ire for designating more national monuments than any other president. He has so far given the status to 16 locations--most recently Browns Canyon in Colorado, a former WWII internment camp in Hawaii, and a historic Chicago neighborhood--bringing the total number of national monuments to 113.

"Conservation is a truly American idea," the President said last week. "The naturalists and industrialists and politicians who dreamt up our system of public lands and waters did so in the hope that, by keeping these places, these special places in trust -- places of incomparable beauty, places where our history was written -- then future generations would value those places the same way as we did."

"We've been talking about this for a while," says Anna Jeffrey, a local environmental activist for Oak Flat. "It's the perfect way to save the area."

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Miriam is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Miriam Wasser