Story at a glance

  • In 2014, an addition to a Pentagon funding bill allowed Rio to swap land it owns near the forest for land above a vast copper reserve in Oak Flat following an environmental review.
  • Opponents have said the review was fast-tracked as President Trump is set to be replaced by President-elect Joe Biden next month.
  • Both the U.S. Forest Service and Rio have pushed back, arguing the permit process has not been expedited.

The Trump administration is on track to approve a land swap this month that would transfer a sacred Native American site in Arizona to a mining company looking to build a copper mine, Reuters reports

Leaders from the San Carlos Apache Tribe, environmentalists and Democrats have accused the federal government of fast-tracking an environmental review process in an effort to give Rio Tinto Ltd and its partners more than 2,400 acres of the land in the Tonto National Forest, as President Trump is set to be replaced by President-elect Joe Biden next month. 


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The area known as Oak Flat has served as a culturally significant and sacred site to many tribal nations in the region for the past 1,500 years. 

In 2014, an addition to a Pentagon funding bill allowed Rio to swap land it owns near the forest for land above a vast copper reserve in Oak Flat after the completion of an environmental review. 

Initially, the U.S. Forest Service estimated it would publish the environmental review in 2021, but tribes in October discovered the date for completion of the process was suddenly moved forward to December 2020. 

“The Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a rushed job just to take care of Rio Tinto,” Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told The Guardian last month. 

“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,” he said. 

Both the U.S. Forest Service and Rio have pushed back, arguing the permit process has not been expedited. 

The Forest Service at the beginning of December said the plan to publish the review in December was a result of the agency completing the process faster than expected, Reuters reports. 

Rio said the project “is not being ‘fast-tracked’,” and that the Apache will be able to visit the land over the next few decades if the land swap is approved. The company said it has consulted with tribes in the area about preserving culturally significant areas. 

Rio came under fire in September following the destruction of a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site to expand an iron ore mine in Australia. The incident led to the resignation of its CEO and two top lieutenants. 

Opponents of the copper mine say they fear the same could happen in Arizona if the project is approved. 

“This is about religious freedom,” Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, told Reuters. 

“For me and our people, it’s a fight not only for today, but for our children and grandchildren.” 


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Published on Dec 07, 2020