Since January, San Carlos Apache tribal member Wendsler Nosie Sr has been sleeping in a teepee at a campground in south-eastern Arizona’s Oak Flat, a sprawling high desert oasis filled with groves of ancient oaks and towering rock spires.
It is a protest in defense of “holy ground” where the Apache have prayed and performed ceremonies for centuries.
A dozen south-western Native American tribes have strong cultural ties to Oak Flat. But the Trump administration, in its waning days, has embarked on a rushed effort to transfer ownership of the area to a mining company with ties to the destruction of an Aboriginal site in Australia, the Guardian has learned.
“We were in the fourth quarter with two minutes left in the game. And then Trump cheated so now we only have one minute left,” said Nosie, who was a football quarterback in high school. “Everybody has to mobilize now to fight this.”
Last month tribes discovered that the date for the completion of a crucial environmental review process has suddenly been moved forward by a full year, to December 2020, even as the tribes are struggling with a Covid outbreak that has stifled their ability to respond. If the environmental review is completed before Trump leaves office, the tribes may be unable to stop the mine.
In a meeting with environmental groups, local officials said that the push was occurring because “we are getting pressure from the highest level at the Department of Agriculture,” according to notes from the meeting seen by the Guardian. The department oversees the US Forest Service, which is in charge of Oak Flat.
As the curtain closes on the Trump era, officials are hurrying through a host of environmentally destructive projects that will benefit corporate interests. These include opening the Arctic national wildlife refuge to oil and gas drilling and rolling back protections on endangered gray wolves.
In Oak Flat, the beneficiaries will be a company called Resolution Copper and its two Anglo-Australian parent firms, the mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP.
“The Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a rushed job just to take care of Rio Tinto,” said the Democratic Arizona representative Raúl Grijalva. “And the fact they are doing it during Covid makes it even more disgusting. Trump and Rio Tinto know the tribes’ reaction would be very strong and public under normal circumstances but the tribes are trying to save their people right now.”
Ever since 1995, when what is estimated to be one of the largest copper deposits in the world was discovered 7,000 feet beneath Oak Flat, a battle has raged pitting environmental and indigenous groups against Resolution Copper.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Oak Flat contains numerous indigenous archaeological sites dating back 1,500 years. If the mine goes forward as planned, it will consume 11 square miles, including Apache burial grounds, sacred sites, petroglyphs and medicinal plants.
Resolution plans to extract 1.4m tons of copper ore by blasting beneath the surface and pulling it out through tunnels. Once all the ore is sucked out, a crater estimated to be 1,000 feet deep and almost two miles across will be left behind.
There is also concern over a 400ft-high escarpment called Apache Leap that is vulnerable to the proposed mine. Named for Apache warriors who jumped off the cliff in the late 1800s to avoid capture by the US army, the site holds great historical significance for the Apache people, and memorializes tribal losses when European immigrants invaded their homeland.
An independent analysis performed on behalf of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition determined there is a 9% chance the mine’s crater could reach Apache Leap and catastrophically destabilize it.
Even though the San Carlos Apache and other tribes have always been opposed to mining at Oak Flat, there are no federal laws giving Native Americans control of ancestral lands that are outside reservation boundaries.
Tribes were blindsided in 2014 when a proposal to exchange federally owned Oak Flat for private land owned by Resolution Copper was included, at the last minute, in a defense spending bill. This inclusion was at the behest of four Arizona members of Congress who supported Resolution’s mining plans; the bill was signed into law by the president, Barack Obama.
For the last six years, the Forest Service has been carrying out an environmental review of the proposed mine and the controversial land exchange. Numerous tribes and environmental groups have voiced their opposition in the hope the mine could be prevented from moving forward or significantly scaled back.
Resolution Copper has argued that it is taking all necessary environmental precautions and has sought input from tribes. “There have been hundreds of consultations on the Resolution Copper project with Native American tribes,” wrote project director Andrew Lye in an email. “As with all tribes, Resolution Copper would welcome the opportunity for more collaborative dialogue with the San Carlos Apache tribe to build a relationship and ultimately look for ways to partner for mutual benefit.”
Resolution has vowed to monitor geologic activity around Apache Leap to make sure the mine’s crater does not get too close to the sacred cliff. Lye also points to a host of community support programs funded by the company to benefit the San Carlos Apache and other tribes. These include a monitoring program where tribal members are trained by archaeologists to help identify culturally significant indigenous artifacts.
Yet the recent history of Rio Tinto, one of the parent companies, has given cause for concern.
Last May, Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000-year old sacred Aboriginal site in Juukan Gorge, in western Australia. After widespread public outcry and investor revolt over the destruction, Rio Tinto’s CEO and two other top executives resigned in September.
“What happened at Juukan was wrong and we are determined to ensure that the destruction of a heritage site of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again at a Rio Tinto operation,” Rio Tinto’s chairman, Simon Thompson, said in a statement following the resignations.
Once the final Oak Flat environmental review is released, the land exchange must happen within 60 days. Ownership of Oak Flat could transfer to Resolution Copper before Joe Biden’s 20 January inauguration.
“We are looking at the destruction of some of the Apache’s most significant cultural and historic sites with this project,” said Kathryn Leonard, the Arizona state historic preservation officer. Federal historic preservation laws focus on ameliorating harms rather than blocking a development altogether, she explained.
“Our preservation laws are not set up to prevent this level of loss. It weighs heavily on me.”
Grijalva, who chairs the House natural resources committee, has asked the Forest Service to explain the reason for the accelerated timeline but as of late last week his staff had not received any clarification. Environmental groups are positioned to challenge the decision in court, while Grijalva and Senator Bernie Sanders have introduced a bill calling for the repeal of the land transfer.
“If the land exchange happens, it will be difficult to roll back,” said Grijalva. “That is why this cannot be rushed. The Forest Service must do their due diligence because of what is at stake. The damage is irreparable.”
• This article was amended on 24 and 26 November 2020 to correct a photo that mistakenly identified Oak Flat, and to note that the 2014 bill which included a transfer of Oak Flat land to Resolution Copper was signed by President Obama.