SUPERIOR, Arizona. (AP) — Oak Flat, a stretch of national forest land in central Arizona, is at the heart of a years-long battle between Native American groups and mining interests who both see it as important to their future.
Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of international mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP, wants to develop the large copper ore deposit deep beneath Oak Flat into a massive mine. The nonprofit organization Apache Stronghold considers the land sacred and says it should be preserved for religious ceremonies.
The project has been put on hold pending an environmental assessment that the Forest Service previously withdrew to further consult with tribes and others. There is no time frame for its completion.
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Here’s how developments have played out for nearly a decade:
November 2013: Resolution Copper introduces its initial general plan of action for a proposed mine in Oak Flat.
12 Dec. 2014: The U.S. Senate passes a military spending bill that includes the Oak Flat land swap, giving the national forest property to mining companies for the development of America’s largest copper mine. A rider who has hidden himself in the legislation called for Resolution Copper to get 3.75 square miles (9.71 square kilometers) of forest land in exchange for eight parcels it owns in Arizona.
March 4, 2016: The Forest Service adds Oak Flat to the National Register of Historic Places. Republican Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona and Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick opposing the historical place designation, with Gosar saying it is “sabotaging an important mining effort.”
24 May 2020: An iron mining project in Rio Tinto destroys two rock shelters inhabited by indigenous peoples for 46,000 years in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia state. the dismissal of the company manager.
January 12, 2021: Apache Stronghold sues the federal governmentsaying the Forest Service cannot legally transfer the land to Rio Tinto for several parcels the company owns and maintains. The land around Oak Flat was set aside for Western Apaches in an 1852 treaty with the US.
February 12, 2021: A federal judge rejects the request to prevent the Forest Service from turning over the land to Resolution Copper. saying that because Apache Stronghold is not a federally recognized tribe, it has no status to claim the land belongs to Apaches.
March 1, 2021 — The United States Department of Agriculture withdraws an environmental assessment that had paved the way for the land swap, saying it needed more time to consult with Indian tribes and others
October 21, 2021: Apache Stronghold asks a three-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to prevent Rio Tinto from obtaining the Oak Flat estate. Months later, the panel reaches a 2-1 decision that allows the federal government to give the Oak Flat land to Rio Tinto, but then agrees to let a larger appeals panel hear the case.
March 21, 2023: Apache stronghold tells a full panel of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals that the resolution project would preventing Native American groups from practicing their religion by destroying land they consider sacred. The eleven-member panel says it will make a decision in the coming months.