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

Leaders of Occupy Oak Flat say they won't give up until the U.S. government repeals the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe, leading a three-week protest at the Oak Flat Campground, vows to remain there until the federal government bends.

The controversial exchange gave Australian-British mining company Resolution Copper (a subsidiary of the largest mining company in the world, Rio Tinto) access to a vast underground copper reserve under Oak Flat. The deal trades 2,400 acres of previously federally protected land for 5,300 acres of company property. The land exchange was attached to the 2015 United States National Defense Authorization Act as a midnight rider after it failed to pass as a stand-alone bill multiple times during the last decade.

"There was never any transparency in how the bill passed, and now people are outraged," says Wendsler Nosie, San Carlos Apache district councilman and leader of the protest. He calls the land exchange a violation of human rights and religious freedom.

"People don't seem to realize how this will affect Indians all across the United States," he says. If the government can give away this land, what's to stop them from doing it again in the future? "It sets precedence."

Oak Flat, part of Tonto National Forest, is a well-known rock-climbing and camping spot, and a sacred area for many Native American tribes. The rich body of copper ore sits 1.25 miles below ground, very close to historically significant land -- including the site of the Apache Leap.

Vernelda Grant, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the San Carlos Apache, explains that she and other members of her tribe pray, forage for wild edibles, and collect medicinal plants there. "This feels like an affront on religious freedom," she tells New Times.

Dave Richins of Resolution Copper says his company has tried on many occasions to reach out to the tribes, maintaining that they haven't responded. "We really want the benefit of this project to be felt throughout the region," he says.

According to the company, Resolution Copper will do a thorough Environmental Impact Statement before official exchange of the title to the land, provide extraordinary protections for the historic Apache Leap, and guarantee safe access to the Oak Flat Campground for as long as possible.

Members of the tribe and environmentalists around the world are skeptical of any promised benefits, especially when the ecological risks are so great.

Of particular controversy is the mining method Resolution Coppers plans to use. It's called block caving and involves digging deep underground and blasting the ore body into pieces from the bottom before removing the copper. Environmentalists across the world oppose the method, and Sandy Bahr, executive director of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, says it will result in land subsidence and could damage much of the surrounding eco-system.

While in the past Resolution Copper has said its plan won't create subsidence, Richins tells New Times that "there will be an impact to the surface: it will subside. But the extent of that we're not sure." He explains that they're "still doing a lot of geological studies to understand everything that's there," and that it will be at least 10 years before any ore is removed -- five years for the permit process, and five to build the mine. "We are looking for a win-win situation," he adds.

The company has started drilling for samples, and according to Anna Jeffrey -- who lives in Superior and follows the issue closely -- it's also pumping out an incredible amount of ground water. She tells New Times that she's seen how this "hot water" laden with minerals is pumped and then dumped on the ground, saying it's wasteful and poses a toxic threat to the environment. Copper Resolution says it's testing the water flow in the area.

According to a recent press release from the protesters, the Forest Service will "work with the Apache people to protect the sacredness of Oak Flat and begin a meaningful dialogue." The Forest Service's Carrie Templin says only that "determining whether land is sacred will be considered during an environmental impact statement."

The protest began on February 6 with a 44-mile march from San Carlos to Oak Flat, and occupiers have rotated in and out of the encampment since. In the last three weeks, people from all over the county, and as far away Peru and Brazil, have visited to express solidarity. Last weekend, more than 400 supporters came, and this past Saturday, there were more than 50 people partaking in prayer, sweat lodges, dancing, and speeches.

"We're going to stay here and continue to occupy. We're going to continue camping here until they repeal it," Councilman Noise told a crowd of cheering supporters. "We're going to live, we're going to stay, and they're not going to chase us off!"

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