A federal appeals court today denied an emergency request to stop the Forest Service from handing over Oak Flat, an ancient Apache sacred site, to a foreign mining company for destruction. In denying the request, the court offered no opinion on the merits of the case, but ruled instead that the appeal should move forward on an expedited schedule because the Forest Service had agreed to delay the land transfer for “months.” Judge Patrick Bumatay dissented, stating that “Apache Stronghold has shown a high likelihood of success on the merits” and is “entitled to more clarity” than the Forest Service’s “assurances.”
Apache Stronghold, a group of Apaches and other Native and non-Native allies, sued the U.S. Forest Service in January to prevent the transfer and destruction of Oak Flat, an Apache holy site that has been used for sacred ceremonies since before recorded history. Western Apaches still rely on the site for core religious practices that cannot take place anywhere else, and the lawsuit alleges that destruction of the sacred site would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The land transfer was originally scheduled to take place March 15. But six hours before the government was required to respond to Apache Stronghold’s emergency appeal, the Forest Service announced that it would delay the transfer.
“The transfer and destruction of an ancient Apache sacred site clearly violate federal law,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “Judge Bumatay is right—this is an easy case. There’s no difference between turning this holy site into a massive crater and dynamiting St. Peter’s Basilica – except that if you blew up St. Peter’s Basilica, Catholics would at least be able to worship elsewhere. But this sacred place is core to the traditional religious exercise of the Apaches – if it is destroyed, there’s nowhere else for them to carry on their sacred traditions.”
Oak Flat, which is part of the ecologically rich Tonto National Forest, has been recognized by the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property. Although the federal government had protected Oak Flat – known to the Apache as “Chi'chil Biłdagoteel” – since the days of the Eisenhower administration, a last-minute provision was attached to a must-pass defense bill in 2014, mandating that the land be transferred to a foreign-owned mining company, Resolution Copper. Apaches consider Oak Flat to be an irreplaceable conduit to their Creator and use the site to worship, pray, access sacred medicinal plants and water springs, and perform religious ceremonies.
“The U.S. government has a long tradition of forcing Apaches off of their own land and destroying their sacred sites to make way for lucrative mining interests,” said Dr. Wendsler Nosie, Sr. of Apache Stronghold. “Chi'chil Biłdagoteel wouldn’t be the first site they have tried to exploit, but we pray that it will be the last. Our ancestors worshipped at Chi'chil Biłdagoteel since time immemorial, and we are merely asking the court to give our children and grandchildren that same opportunity.”
The Ninth Circuit’s decision comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it was withdrawing an environmental impact statement issued in the waning days of the Trump administration, which triggered the land transfer to Resolution Copper within 60 days. The appeal will continue on an expedited basis in the Ninth Circuit.
§ Opinion (March 5, 2021)
- Case page for Apache Stronghold v. United States (press releases and legal documents)
Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions and has a 100% win-rate before the United States Supreme Court. For over 25 years, it has successfully defended clients of all faiths, including Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, and Zoroastrians (read more here).