Legislation to save an Apache sacred site from destruction by an international mining company got a helping hand recently when the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the land on its 2015 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Almost all of the places that make it onto the list are preserved.
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Rep. Raúl Grijalva
Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the bipartisan Save Oak Flat Act, H.R. 2811, on June 17. Grijalva’s bill would repeal a section of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015 (NDAA) that authorizes approximately 2,422 acres of land known as Oak Flat in the Tonto National Forest in Southeastern Arizona to be transferred to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of the giant international mining company Rio Tinto.
On June 24—exactly a week after Grijalva introduced his bill—the National Trust for Historic Preservation unveiled its 2015 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, which annually spotlights important examples of the nation’s architectural, cultural and natural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage. Oak Flat is one of them.
Being placed on the National Trust’s annual list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places is the first step toward permanent preservation as a national treasure. The list, which has identified more than 250 such places to date, has been so successful in galvanizing preservation efforts that only a handful of sites have been lost.
The Oak Flat land transfer was slipped into the Senate version of the annual must-pass military spending bill as a rider by Arizona Republican Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake. Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar placed the rider in the House of Representatives’ version.
Grijalva opposes the land giveaway for a number of moral, environmental and legal reasons. For one, Resolution Copper plans a mining project that will result in “the physical destruction of tribal sacred areas and deprive American Indians from practicing their religions, ceremonies, and other traditional practices,” the bill says. “The mining project will also create significant negative environmental impacts by destroying the area and depleting and contaminating precious water resources.”
Oak Flat is part of the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s ancestral territory, the tribe’s most cherished sacred site. The federal government removed San Carlos and Yavapai Indians from Oak Flat and the surrounding area around 1886 and expropriated the land. The land became part of the Tonto National Forest, which the federal government established as public land in 1905 primarily to protect its watersheds around reservoirs.
Used for religious purposes for thousands of years, Oak Flat still draws San Carlos Apaches and other Native people to its landscape of forests, streams, desert, grasslands, craggy mountains and huge rock formations with ancient petroglyphs to gather acorns—their main food staple—and medicinal plants, and to conduct ceremonies.
Resolution Copper’s massive deep underground copper mine would devastate that land. The company plans to use a technique called block caving, which extracts the metal by hollowing out the land a mile or more beneath the surface without supporting structures, causing the surface to collapse. The company plans to use that method “because that is the cheapest form of mining,” Grijalva’s bill says. “Resolution Copper admits that the surface will subside and ultimately collapse, destroying forever this place of worship.”
Grijalva’s bill invokes the federal government’s trust responsibility to protect tribal sacred areas on federal lands.
“These laws require meaningful consultations with affected Indian tribes before making decisions that will impact American Indians,” it says.
It also notes that the McCain-Flake rider sets a dangerous precedent by requiring the land to be conveyed to the mining company regardless of the outcome of a mandated environmental review or the outcome of mandated federal consultation with affected tribes. It also ignores the international standard found in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples requiring the “free, prior and informed consent” of indigenous communities before undertaking projects that affect them. The Obama administration announced its support for the Declaration in December 2010.
Grijalva urged quick action on his bill.
“What this unpopular corporate giveaway was doing in the national security bill is anyone’s guess, and we shouldn’t wait any longer to repeal it,” Grijalva said. “Congress shouldn’t be in the business of helping big corporations at others’ expense, and it certainly shouldn’t break faith with Native American communities. I’m proud to lead our bipartisan team in saying we should repeal this giveaway and stop treating corporate handouts as national defense priorities.”
The Save Oak Flat Act has 17 co-sponsors: Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), Rep. Mark Wayne Mullin (R-OK), Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-NC), Rep. Betty McCollum (D-MN), Rep. Norma J. Torres (D-CA), Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-FL), Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-FL), Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-NM), Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-CA), Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), Tony Cardenas (D-CA-29), Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA), Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), Rep. Gwen Moore (D-WI), Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), Rep. Chellie Pingree [D-ME], and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA).
The bill was referred to the House Subcommittee on Indian, Insular and Alaska Native Affairs on July 1.