A giant mining company is one step closer to building one of the nation's largest underground copper mines, an hour east of Phoenix, on land considered sacred to many Apaches.
Oak Flat is in the Tonto National Forest by the town of Superior in Pinal County. It's known for its campgrounds, trails, and rock climbing.
British-Australian Resolution Copper wants to mine underneath Oak Flat, essentially destroying the area and potentially impacting surrounding landscapes.
Oak Flat is where Native Americans once lived freely. It's now owned by the US Forest Service, but if a land exchange goes through, Resolution Copper will have access to the land to build its mine.
Native Americans and their allies have been fighting the project for years and say they won’t give up now.
Oak Flat is off Route 60, by the town of Superior in Pinal County. Part of the Tonto National Forest, Oak Flat is known for its stunning scenery, world-renowned rock climbing, and popular campground.
For some native tribes, it's culturally important. For Apaches, the land is holy. It's why for years, people have been fighting plans to build an underground copper mine at Oak Flat.
Resolution Copper is owned by British-Australian companies Rio Tinto and BHP. They plan to bring one of the nation's largest mines to the area.
They will capture the copper ore with explosives, coming at it from underneath the deposit 7,000 feet below the surface. As the explosions undercut the copper ore, the land will collapse into a giant sinkhole. It'll leave a crater nearly two miles wide.
Oak Flat would be destroyed.
For generations, the Nosie family from the San Carlos Apache tribe has been taking part in traditions at Oak Flat.
"Since I was a little girl, my grandma and my mom took me here and we would pick the acorn. We use that--we say Apache cuisine, we put it in our soups and meats," said Naelyn Pike.
Those Emory oak groves would also be destroyed.
"That's where Chi'chil Bildagoteel, the Apache name for this place, that's where it comes from," said Wendsler Nosie Sr., referring to the acorns.
Wendsler Nosie Sr. created Apache Stronghold years ago, a group of tribe members, locals and others fighting to protect sacred sites. He's the former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe and served many years as a city council member there. He's been living at Oak Flat for the past year.
"It's our identity, it's our culture, it's our way," he said. "It includes everything from angels to the earth talking to you, the wind talks to you, just the holiness of this place."
"For Apache people in the past, you could be born here and you could die here. So everything here is provided for us -- the water from the springs, the animals and the plants, that's something sacred," said Pike. "That's what this fight is about--it's about survival. Without these places, our people won't survive spiritually."
Nosie Sr. said Oak Flat is at the center of their teachings about life and creation and their connection to mother earth.
"We talk about angels, deities, spirit, the gift of life," said Nosie Sr.
The Apaches--and other Native Americans--have used this land to pray, collect medicinal plants, hold ceremonies, and honor those buried there. If the mine goes forward as planned, it will consume those burial sites, ruins and petroglyphs.
Pike said Oak Flat has been the site for many sunrise ceremonies, which is a right of passage for women. She explained that in the Apache religion, there's an eternal, direct connection between the girl and the land where the ceremony took place.
"From the air to the water, is sacred and holy. It's that direct connection to our creator," said Pike.
She worries her youngest sister and future children won't get to share in these traditions.
"How do I even tell someone, like, 'Son or daughter this place was beautiful. And now you're looking at a crater,'" she said.
Impact reports by the US Forest Service warn waste from the mine could contaminate water supplies, potentially threatening wildlife habitats, drinking wells and water for livestock.
Randy Serraglio is a southwest conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. He said the Resolution Copper project would devastate the landscape and endangered animals and plants.
"It's a travesty that should not be allowed to occur," he said. "They have to de-water that hole in order to do their operation, so many springs and creeks in the area will go dry and destroy habitat that is absolutely essential for so many species."
That includes Ga'an Canyon, or Devil's Canyon, just east of the proposed project. With spectacular rock formations, pools and a waterfall, it's a gem for hikers and rock climbers.
"It's just a travesty that we've got nothing in our federal laws that can protect places like this," said Serraglio.
The area had been protected for decades, but a bill in 2014 authorized an exchange of land that would give Resolution Copper 2,400 acres in the area.
Resolution Copper Project
The Resolution Copper mine would be one of the largest in the nation, but it'll only be possible if the company gets access to Oak Flat and some of the surrounding land in the Tonto National Forest. The copper ore sits below the desert floor about a mile behind Apache Leap.
Based on drilling data, officials believe the undeveloped ore deposit under Oak Flat is one of the largest in the world. Resolution Copper estimates it could produce as much as 40 billion pounds of copper over 40 years, supplying up to 25% of the nation’s demand. Copper is used in plumbing, wiring, cell phones, medical equipment, and construction.
Resolution Copper will dig under about 7,000 feet below the surface to access the copper ore over the course of about 40 to 50 years. Explosions will cause the ore to collapse under its weight, falling into a series of pre-constructed funnels and access tunnels. Over time, the land will disintegrate into a giant sinkhole. Data shows it'd leave a crater on the surface about 2 miles wide.
In a statement, Resolution Copper said, "it's committed to ongoing engagement with Native American tribes" and that the company has made changes to the plan based on feedback.
Those changes include:
- Reducing the land exchange area requested by Resolution Copper from 3,325 acres to 2,422 acres, excluding Ga'an Canyon, Apache Leap and portions of Oak Flat.
- Placing Apache Leap in permanent protection under a special management area.
- Providing ongoing access to Oak Flat Campground, for as long as it is safe, for at least the next few decades.
- Implementing the multi-year conservation program for the Emory oak.
You can read more about Resolution Copper's plans to protect cultural heritage here.
Resolution Copper is owned by Rio Tinto and BHP, the world's two largest mining companies based in Australia and Britain.
In May 2020, Rio Tinto blasted a sacred Australian indigenous site at Juukan Gorge to access iron ore. The destruction led to widespread public outcry and a promise from the company that it was committed to “listening, learning and changing.”
Resolution Copper said it's worked for years to come up with mitigation measures to keep sites sacred to Native Americans protected.
"Anything this company says about protecting these kinds of places is essentially meaningless. They've already broken those promises many times," said Serraglio.
In a statement provided to ABC15 on January 15, the company said the project has the potential to create about 3,700 direct and indirect jobs in Arizona. It projects to bring $61 billion to the state over the estimated 60-year life of the mine, "creating lasting benefits for the region and playing a vital role in the nation's economic recovery."
For more than 100 years, mining has been the identity of the communities in Superior, Miami and Globe. It's part of the Copper Triangle, a region scattered with both active and abandoned mines.
Gary Jones worked for a mine in Globe for decades. He said the economic pluses far outweigh the potential cultural and environmental concerns.
"You have to mine copper where it's found, and it just happens to be found in this area in Arizona. It provides lots of jobs, keeps the economy going," said Jones. "The four, five Cs in Arizona, well most of those are going away now people want to do away with copper too?"
"As long as it doesn't hurt the residents, I think it's great, I really do because I think this area needs it, I really do," said local resident Barbara Burrola.
If and when Resolution Copper gets the land, it'll spend the next several years getting permits and conducting studies. It'll take about 10 years to build infrastructure for the mining. Company leaders have said they hope to keep the Oak Flat Campground open as long as possible.
How did we get here & what's next?
In the 1950s, the Eisenhower administration had declared Oak Flat off limits to mining. It was protected until 2014, when a bill allowed for a land exchange between the federal government and Resolution Copper, granting it access to Oak Flat.
Many Native Americans and their allies have argued that the Trump administration pushed to get the company the land by speeding up the publication of the US Forest Service's Final Environmental Impact Statement, an analysis required in order for the land exchange to occur. It was published on January 15.
They said it's one of several of Trump's policies that actively hurt Native American communities. During his time in office, Trump approved the Dakota Access Pipeline, he reduced the size of two Utah national monuments--Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante--to allow for mining and energy drilling. He built a border wall with Mexico through sacred burial ground, and he opened up part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development.
"All these issues that are a fundamental slap in the face and very concretely harmful to native people. Trump has really done this, a callous disregard, and just recklessly pushed forward with these projects," said Serraglio.
President Joe Biden has already said he would review many of those policies and restore protections for lands sacred to Native Americans.
He has also appointed New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior. She’s a member of New Mexico's Laguna Pueblo and will be the first-ever Native American in the position. If confirmed, Haaland will lead a department with broad oversight over tribal lands in the US and the complicated relationship between tribal nationals and the US government.
Oak Flat is part of the US Forest Service, which is overseen by the Department of Agriculture. Haaland won't have direct control, but advocates hope she will have influence.
These moves bring hope to Apaches in eastern Arizona that have been fighting the Resolution Copper mine.
Right now, there's a court fight over a land exchange that’s the foundation for the project. Apache Stronghold, among others, has filed lawsuits to halt the project. On February 3, a U.S. District Court Judge will consider requests for an injunction to stop the land swap.
Defenders of Oak Flat hope enough people speak out and acknowledge the cultural and religious significance of the land.
"In this system, the leaders listen to the constituents and the constituents need to start saying, 'Let's do what's right,'" said Wendsler Nosie Sr. "The reason why in this fight I have a little bit more hope--not because they're Democrats, not because they're Republicans--it's because it's become a United States issue, it's become a world issue."
Congress could also pass a bill that would protect Oak Flat.
Resolution Copper said the permitting process has not been fast-tracked, stating online, "the project has been shaped by a rigorous, transparent and multi-year federal permitting process."