Historic mining town in Arizona supports copper project on lands considered sacred by Native American groups

SUPERIOR, Arizona. (AP) — Mayor Mila Besich grew up in a mining family that stretches back generations and knew the Oak Flat Campground as the place where she attended union picnics as a girl and in earlier years her parents would stand in a clearing to hear the World Series on the radio .

Now Besich oversees Superior’s fight to build a new copper project in Oak Flat amid concerns about the town’s economic future.

Today, the national forest land in the heart of Arizona’s “Copper Corridor” is dotted with 20 rustic campgrounds among ancient oak trees and a hand-painted sign that reads, “Protect Oak Flat, Holy Land.” Deep underground lies the world’s third-largest deposit of copper ore, large enough to yield 40 billion pounds (18 billion kilograms) of the metal over 60 years.

Competing interests have led to a tug-of-war between the town of about 3,000 residents who want a massive copper mine built there for its economic benefits, and Native American groups who consider the land sacred and fight to protect it from disturbance.

“Our city will be the hardest hit,” said the mayor. “What about our culture?”

Resolution Copper Mining, a joint subsidiary of British and Australian mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, hopes to build one of the world’s largest underground copper mines at the site outside Superior, about 70 miles (113 kilometers) east of Phoenix. Managing partner Rio Tinto says the mine could meet a quarter of growing US demand for copper used in electric vehicles and smartphones.

Resolution began the permitting process nearly a decade ago, but the project has been delayed amid legal and political wrangling between U.S. agencies and the nonprofit Apache Stronghold, which is challenging a planned land swap that would make the project possible. The full U.S. 9th District Court of Appeals is considering Apache Stronghold’s request to permanently halt the project, but the only thing holding it back now is the lack of a new environmental impact assessment.

Two other lawsuits challenging the initial environmental assessment, one filed by the San Carlos Apache tribe and the other by environmental groups, have come to nothing since the US government withdrew its impact statement for more consultations.

Oak Flat is on the Tonto National Forest property to be turned over for resolution under a land exchange that Congress approved in 2014 for a defense bill to pass.

The congressional vote sparked outrage among some Apaches over the site, which contains ancient Emory oaks and their acorns and other plants they consider important to their culture and religion. The campground, called Chi’chil Bildagotel, is about an hour’s drive from the San Carlos Apache Reservation and is used for girls’ coming of age celebrations.

Rio Tinto has said it would keep the campground open during the mine’s first decades of operation. But Oak Flat could eventually collapse into a 1.7-mile (2.8-kilometer) crater when huge amounts of rock are removed from below.

Wendsler Nosie, former president of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and long-time activist, is the face of the Save Oak Flat campaign. He previously fought unsuccessfully to stop a major telescope project at a site in southeastern Arizona considered sacred by the Apaches: Mount Graham, or Dzil Nchaa Sí’an.

Nosie said he believes many townspeople quietly support his fight, but “they can’t openly show their support for me.”

When he was recently confronted at a local restaurant by a mining company employee who accused him of endangering jobs, development and good schools, “I stood up and told how I fight for the land, the water, the earth , religion and our children,” he said, causing a group of guests to applaud and pay for his dinner.

While the San Carlos Apache leadership opposes the mine, some tribal members support the mine for the jobs it could generate amid the reservation’s high unemployment.

“Oak Flat is not sacred,” said Karen Kitcheyan-Jones, 64, a member who lives on the reservation. “There are many places on the reserve where we can collect acorns and hold ceremonies.”

Brenda Astor, Resolution’s chief advisor for Native Affairs and a San Carlos Apache member, noted that dozens of other enrollees also work for the mining company.

Amid strong opposition to the project by some tribes and others, the Forest Service withdrew the resolution’s original environmental impact statement for Oak Flat two years ago for additional consultation. No time frame has been announced. But once a new review is published, the formal transfer process can begin unless a federal court stops it.

U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona introduced legislation again in March to stop land transfers, but it failed to gain traction in Congress.

Rio Tinto says the mine would help create 3,700 jobs over the course of the project and raise state and local tax revenues by $88 million to $113 million annually.

That’s a lot for a city that’s still backtracking economically after the Magma copper mine first closed in 1982, later opened for a few years, then closed for good in 1996. The closure devastated a community so small that there are is no traffic light and can be crossed by car in just over three minutes.

Superior was originally incorporated in 1882 as the town of Hastings when the major mine was the Silver King, producing silver. The former mining towns of Globe and Miami are nearby, nestled in mountains dotted with saguaro cactus.

Today, Superior still embraces its labor roots, a Democratic island in predominantly Republican Pinal County, said Besich, himself a Democrat.

More than a quarter of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Nearly 70% of the population is Hispanic, largely descendants of mining families who emigrated from Mexico or worked in the area when it was part of Mexico until the mid-1800s.

“We didn’t cross the border, he crossed us,” said Manny Guzman, whose family in the area stretches back seven generations. His ancestor Manuelita Guzman (1844–1916) is buried in the historic Pinal Cemetery, also the final resting place of Wyatt Earp’s wife, Mattie Earp.

Guzman, president of the nonprofit economic development organization Rebuild Superior, said he remains hopeful the mine will prevail but finds the delays frustrating after spending countless hours debating the environmental assessment.

“There have been so many studies, so many roundtables,” he said.

The talks have provided Superior with significant benefits, such as ensuring the protection of the city’s water supply and guaranteeing a minimum of $120 million in revenue to pay police and firefighters over the course of the project if it goes ahead.

“We’ve seen some pretty dramatic changes to the plan,” said Vicky Peacey, Resolution’s president and general manager. “It is important that many voices are heard.”

Rio Tinto also agreed to permanently protect Apache Leap, the backdrop to the town where, according to local legend, about 75 Apaches jumped 400 feet to their deaths in the early 1870s instead of surrendering to US cavalry.

Town manager Todd Pryor said Resolution has provided $2.25 million to help buy the old brick Superior High School that is being renovated to house City Hall, a library and senior citizen activities, and has thrown in another $1.29 million for an enterprise center to develop and teach future entrepreneurs about human trafficking such as welding.

Officials in a city that has seen cycles of boom and bust say they know they need to diversify their economy and can’t rely on Resolution and mine alone for their future.

They develop local tourism and host a popular Apache Leap Mining Festival every March with a parade, chihuahua races, and a handsaw mining competition and jackleg drilling contests. Hundreds visit the town every August for the Prickly Pear Festival, featuring cactus fruit ice cream and margaritas.

But in a state that produces 70% of the country’s copper, and in a city where nearly all parents and grandparents worked for the mines, the biggest bets for the future are on ore mining.

“It’s in our DNA,” said Rick Cartier, president of the Chamber of Commerce.


Associated Press writer Deepa Bharath in Oak Flat, Arizona, contributed to this report.


The Associated Press’ coverage of religion is supported by the AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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