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Re: Raiding Native Sacred Places in a Defense Authorization: Everything Wrong with Congress

The San Carlos Apache Tribe (Tribe) has worked for the past decade to shine light on the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange.

The San Carlos Apache Tribe (Tribe) has worked for the past decade to shine light on the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange that would transfer Oak Flat and nearby lands in the Tonto National Forest – lands held sacred by my Tribe and many other Native Americans – to a foreign-owned mining corporation for certain destruction. Sadly, this Land Exchange has been airdropped into the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) at the eleventh hour, as Congress prepares to bring the 113th Session to close.

RELATED: San Carlos Apache Leader Seeks Senate Defeat of Copper Mine on Sacred Land

Hundreds of tribal governments, tribal organizations, and others have joined San Carlos Apaches in opposition to the Land Exchange because it would transfer public federal lands that encompass a known Native place of worship to a private mining company. Because of this opposition, the majority of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives opposed the Land Transfer. House Leadership twice pulled it from consideration because this misguided Land Transfer lacked the votes for passage. The Senate Committee with jurisdiction over the bill also refused to move it forward.

In the face of this opposition, certain Members of Arizona’s delegation forced a closed-door deal to include the SE Arizona Land Exchange into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015. The Land Exchange was included in Section 3003 on page 1,103 of a 1,700-page bill that was unveiled after 11:00 p.m. the evening before it came up for consideration. This exemplifies everything wrong with Congress.

Before the U.S. Senate takes final action on this breach of trust, on behalf of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, I respectfully urge Senate Leaders to strike Section 3003, Southeast Arizona Land Exchange, S. 1847, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) prior to passage. If the Senate fails to protect our place of worship, I additionally ask that the Administration veto this measure.

Section 3003 would direct the Secretary of Agriculture to convey over 2,400 acres of the Forest, including Oak Flat, to a mining company called Resolution Copper, which is owned by the foreign mining giants Rio Tinto PLC (United Kingdom) and BHP Billiton Ltd (Australia). The Forest, established in 1905 from Apache ancestral homelands, is named after the Tonto Apaches who were forced from the Oak Flat area in the 1870s and imprisoned at Camp Verde Reservation. The Reservation is located 15 miles from Oak Flat. During the winter of 1875, the Apache prisoners of war were forced marched to San Carlos Reservation by the military. Over one hundred Tonto Apaches died during that winter March. It seems that history is repeating itself.

Oak Flat is a place of irreplaceable beauty. President Eisenhower specifically withdrew the Area from mining through a Public Lands Order. President Nixon reaffirmed withdrawal. However, Rio Tinto/Resolution Copper seek to develop and operate the largest copper mine in North America in the Oak Flat area. Resolution Copper plans to use the highly destructive block cave mining method to remove one cubic mile of ore – the equivalent of 1,400 stadiums – 7,000 feet beneath the surface of the earth without replacing any of the earth removed because it is the cheapest form of mining. Resolution Copper itself admits that the surface will collapse creating a crater visible from outer space and destroying forever our place of worship.

No one knows exactly how and where the earth will collapse as a result of Resolution Copper’s underground mining on this scale. Resolution Copper has never addressed what would happen if the inevitable collapse damages or causes the collapse of Highway 60. Highway 60 is the only direct highway from Phoenix to eastern Arizona. The economic repercussions for the citizens of Arizona would be immense and potentially devastating.

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The Transfer and resulting mine will forever alter the region’s water quality and water supply. Copper is one of the most water-intensive forms of mining in existence. Add block cave mining into the factor, and the need for water further intensifies. The U.S. established the Tonto National Forest in 1904 to protect the region’s watershed. This protection will also turn to dust with the Land Exchange.

Section 3003 fleeces the American taxpayer and undermines national security. Rio Tinto drafted the appraisal provisions in the bill, ensuring that it will benefit to the greatest extent possible at the expense of the American taxpayer. The beneficiaries of the Land Transfer – Resolution Copper Mining and its parent corporation Rio Tinto – will reap billions in American taxpayer resources. They are earmarked to reap these benefits without any guarantee that the copper remains in the U.S. Resolution Copper Project Director, Andrew Taplin, admitted in a recent Arizona Central article that the copper ore mined from Oak Flat will likely be shipped out of the country to be smelted. Rio Tinto’s top shareholder – Chinalco, a corporation owned by the government of China – cannot wait for this deal to pass.

In addition, Rio Tinto has repeatedly refused to sever its partnership with the Government of Iran, through the Iran Foreign Investment Company (IFIC), in the Rössing Uranium Mine in Namibia, Africa. The Institute for Science and International Security issued a report on October 24, 2013, stating that the Government of Iran may be in proximate possession of weapons-grade uranium. Both United Against a Nuclear Iran and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies have raised concerns with this dangerous proposal that directly benefits Rio Tinto and its partnership with the IFIC. Rio Tinto does not concern itself with the United States’ national security. It only concerns itself with its own profits.

The proponents of Section 3003 claim that the bill was amended to address the Tribe’s concerns with protection of our sacred places and environmental concerns. These claims are hollow. Despite changes to require consultation with affected tribes and compliance with the National Environmental Protection Act, Section 3003 still mandates the transfer of Oak Flat into the private ownership of Resolution Copper regardless of the results of the consultation or information and recommendations resulting from the NEPA process. A mandatory conveyance defeats the purpose of tribal consultations and the NEPA process that are designed to help provide information before decisions about transferring the land are made. In Section 3003, the outcome is pre-determined, rendering tribal views and public comments meaningless. Furthermore, Section 3003 would not require Resolution Copper to mitigate impacts on the Oak Flat area after conveyance and contains no repercussions or penalties on Resolution Copper for environmental harm or the destruction to our sacred areas.

Proponents also falsely claim that the Tribe was consulted on these changes. The first the Tribe saw the language of Section 3003 was after 11:00 p.m. on the evening of December 2, 2014 when the House Rules Committee posted the bill online. This is the antithesis of democracy. We are extremely disappointed by the lack of transparency and lack of opportunity to comment on this provision. The Tribe greatly appreciates the efforts of Rep. Tom Cole, other Members of the House Rules Committee, and Rep. Betty McCollum for their efforts to remove Section 3003 from S. 1847 during that Committee’s vote on the rule on the basis that the provision, among other things, subverted the will of the House and was included in S. 1847 without fair process.

For these reasons, I again urge Senate Leaders to strike Section 3003 from the NDAA. If this breach of trust moves forward in Congress, I ask that the Administration veto this measure.

Oak Flat is one of our religious places where our Gaan – spiritual deities and Holy People – reside. Apache people have lived, prayed, and died in the Oak Flat Area since time immemorial. We are saddened that Congress, through an 11th hour rider, has ignored the will of the people. We are concerned for our children who may never see or practice their religion in their rightful place of worship. We are worried for the children of southeast Arizona who may have to find new places to live to drink clean water. And we are gravely concerned for the American voter whose voice continues to be ignored. However, the Apache people will not remain silent. We are committed to shining light on the Land Exchange and the proposed mine until we have no breath.

Terry Rambler is the San Carlos Apache Tribal Chairman.