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Anita Snow
Associated Press

PHOENIX — A group of elders from the San Carlos Apache Nation gathered Thursday to urge Arizona Sen. Mark Kelly to back legislation that will keep land they call sacred from being torn up for a massive copper mine.

Some high school students from the Brophy College Preparatory showed up to support the half-dozen elders for the demonstration outside the Democratic senator's Phoenix office to protect the land known as Oak Flat.

“We want the senator's staffers to know we are opposed to the land transfer,” said Sandra Rambler, a tribal elder. “My ancestors are buried at Oak Flat.”

(Previous: Apaches ask court to back bid to save Oak Flat)

In a statement from Washington, where the Senate is in session, Kelly did not spell out a clear stance.

“Mining is an important part of Arizona’s history and a major contributor to our economy," Kelly said Thursday. "I’m continuing to evaluate the environmental impacts of this and any project like it. I have met with and heard from leaders of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, local elected officials, and folks on both sides of the issue."

Companion bills in the House and Senate aim to overturn a land exchange that would allow the mine's development. The Senate bill tribal citizens want Kelly to support has been referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, but has not faced a vote.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, has held up the transfer so far by pulling back the environmental review that will allow additional consultations with tribes.

Tribal citizens are awaiting a ruling from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco on the federal lawsuit the nonprofit organization Apache Stronghold filed in January in an effort to permanently block the pending land swap. Apache Stronghold argued its case before the appeals court in October.

The Apaches call the mountainous area Chi’chil Bildagoteel. The land near the central Arizona community of Superior has ancient oak groves and traditional plants that tribal citizens say are essential to their religion and culture.

Attorneys for the U.S. Forest Service counter that the land belongs to the United States.

File photo: Wendsler Nosie, Sr. speaks with Apache activists in a rally to save Oak Flat, land near Superior, Ariz., sacred to Western Apache tribes, in front of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Tuesday, July 22, 2015. The land sits on top of a large copper deposit and Resolution Copper Mine enlisted the help of Sen. John McCain. McCain, R-Arz., who attached a provision into a defense bill in December 2014 that transferred 2,400 acres of federal land to them in exchange for 5,300 acres of land owned by the company. McCain heralded the bill as a compromise that protects 800 acres of sacred land along Apache Leap, allows access to Oak Flats campgrounds and requires the mine to undergo an Environmental Impact Statement before it receives the land. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)

Gov. Doug Ducey and Arizona business leaders support the project, which would be among the largest copper mines in the U.S. It is projected to have a $61 billion impact over 60 years and employ up to 1,500 people.

A federal judge in February rejected a request from Apache Stronghold to keep the U.S. Forest Service from transferring the land to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto.

Andrew Lye, project director for Resolution Copper, said Thursday the company is “committed to ongoing engagement with Native American tribes as we follow the permitting process set out by the U.S. government."

“Tribes have already considerably influenced the project approach, including relocation of major project facilities and infrastructure to protect specific traditional cultural properties, avoidance of medicinal plants, springs and ancestral sites, placing the culturally significant Apache Leap area under permanent protection,” Lye said.

Resolution Copper has said it would not deny Apaches access to Oak Flat after it receives the land and for as long as it’s safe. But the project would eventually swallow the site in a deep hole, something that ultimately would make any visits impossible.

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