Story at a glance
- Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R) traded ownership of a sacred Native American site in their state to two foreign mining giants.
- San Carlos Apaches have sought to protect the land above an untapped vein of copper for more than a decade.
- The scheduled transfer is being challenged in court by Indigenous tribes who say it violates a treaty signed by the United States.
The Biden administration paused the transfer of sacred Indigenous land sitting above an untapped vein of copper to foreign mining giants, allowing the Apache Stronghold to make what may be their last stand on the land.
Days after his inauguration, President Biden released a memo on "tribal consultation" in which he ordered executive departments and agencies to pursue "regular, meaningful, and robust consultation with Tribal officials in the development of Federal policies that have Tribal implications."
In response, the Department of Agriculture has halted the process, a long-awaited win for the tribe, which has been fighting to protect the land for over a decade.
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“USDA has concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by Tribes and the public and the project’s impacts to these important resources and ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law,” said the agency in a statement.
The Forest Service was in the process of carrying out an environmental review of the proposed mine and the land that would have lasted another year, but in the final months of his administration, former President Trump pushed up the timeline, with local officials reporting “pressure from the highest level at the Department of Agriculture.” Now, the USDA has directed the Forest Service to withdraw the Trump administration’s Notice of Availability and rescind the Final Environmental Impact Statement and draft Record of Decision.
Arizona Sens. John McCain (R) and Jeff Flake (R) approved the transfer in a last-minute rider onto a defense spending bill in December 2014 that was coming up against the clock. Lawmakers had been lobbied for years by Resolution Copper, a subsidiary formed by two foreign conglomerates, BHP Billiton Ltd. of Australia and Rio Tinto, whose CEO and two other top executives stepped down in September after the company destroyed a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia in the process of expanding an iron ore mine.
“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 at the time.
As the mining company and local officials scramble to defend the project, the Apache Stronghold group filed a lawsuit against the federal government in January arguing that the transfer of sacred land violated religious freedom protections and an 1852 treaty between the Western Apaches and the U.S.
"The Oak Flat Parcel of the proposed Resolution Copper Mine Project is located right smack dab in the middle of the Western Apaches' 1852 Treaty lands," said the lawsuit, noting that the treaty was "never amended, rescinded, nor terminated.” The judge denied an emergency request to block the transfer, making the Biden administration's announcement a potential last stand for the tribe.
"Oak Flat is still on death row," Michael Nixon, one of the tribe's attorneys, told NBC News. "This is just a postponement of the execution date."
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