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Here’s an Earth Day project: Save the sacred Apache lands

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File
This June 15, 2015 file photo shows an encampment belonging to protesters in the Oak Flat area of Superior, Ariz., sacred land to the Apache where Rio Tinto wants to operate a copper mine.

Americans will celebrate the 52nd  Earth Day on Friday by engaging in land and ocean cleanups, as well as renewed action to stem climate change. Along the way, we should also band together to stop a government-backed project that, if allowed to proceed, will leave a permanent scar on the American landscape while flagrantly abusing one of the most fundamental of human rights: the free exercise of religion.

In the Tonto National Forest in Arizona is a large swath of land that has been held sacred to the religion of the Apache people for centuries. It is known to most Americans as Oak Flat. It is known to the Apache as Chich’il Bildagoteel, their equivalent of the Temple Mount or Vatican Hill. The centuries-old religious significance of this site has been recognized by the U.S. government since 19th century treaty negotiations with the Apache.

The more than 2,400 acres of Oak Flat offer a bounty of environmental and cultural riches. Oak Flat is home to ocelots, majestic oak trees, and the colorful flowers of the hedgehog cacti. It is a place of restoration for urban hikers and campers. For the Apache, it is a sacred site to harvest medicinal plants, stage coming-of-age ceremonies and pray to the Creator.

Under current law, Oak Flat is in danger of being mutilated beyond recognition and any possibility of restoration. In 2014, the site was targeted in a midnight rider to a must-pass defense funding bill. Because of that rider, under current law, Oak Flat is to be part of a land swap with a foreign mining company, Rio Tinto, which plans to mine copper at the site.

In most instances, extractive industries can flourish side by side with other uses. This is not one of those cases. When the mine is dug, Rio Tinto will obliterate Oak Flat, leaving behind a crater as long as the National Mall and as deep as two Washington Monuments.

Arizonans are tallying the environmental cost of this deal in terms of lost habitat, destroyed ecosystems, forgone recreation, and the enormous amounts of water the mine will consume in a state already ravaged by decades of drought.

Imagine doing that to any other community or religious group — to pulverize St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, or the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island — and not only destroy an irreplaceable site of worship but leave behind an ugly and enormous gash in the earth.

The good news is that the Apache, long marginalized and lacking in political power, are well represented by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), chair of the House Natural Resources Committee. His bill, the Save Oak Flat Act, has been cosponsored by 100 members of Congress, including one of a few tribally enrolled Native Americans in Congress, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Conservation, Indigenous and religious groups have urged Congress to pass the bill.

Opponents of the bill will claim that stopping this project would kill good American jobs. Karla Schumann, secretary-treasurer of Arizona-based Teamsters Local Union 104, who has every reason to want to support good union jobs in her state, has written that “this mine will be fully automated and will not create good jobs for Arizonans.”

Opponents of the Save Oak Flat Act also claim that with the nation’s critical reliance on digital technology and electric vehicles, access to new sources of copper is a strategic necessity. In fact, the U.S. Geological Survey reports that about 60 percent of U.S. copper comes from recycled scrap, which is probably why the federal government left copper off its recently revised list of strategic minerals. The Arizona Department of Transportation reports that most of the copper from this mine would be exported. The most likely destination is China.

Does it make sense to allow the utter desecration of a living religion of our fellow Americans and the culture it sustains? Is there anything to be gained by destroying a treasured wilderness, all to help a foreign mining company ship copper overseas?

When my former colleagues look across the vast expanse of the National Mall, I urge them to remember the Founders’ promise of the free exercise of religion. Then imagine it is taken from us and replaced by a crater that goes all the way from the Capitol steps to the Lincoln Memorial.

Rick Boucher, a senior policy advisor to Protect The 1st, represented Virginia’s 9th Congressional District from 1983 to 2011.

Tags Apache copper mining Earth Day Raul Grijalva Tonto National Forest

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