Oak Flat is ‘irreplaceable.’ Congress must act now to save it.

Oak Flat in 2020. Photo by Elias Butler Photography | Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

Congress now has a historic opportunity to protect American Indian cultural and religious  resources and prevent destructive economic development by enacting the Save Oak Flat Act, which is currently included in the House version of the pending budget reconciliation legislation. 

The Save Oak Flat Act (SOFA) would protect a 2,422-acre site known as Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, also called Oak Flat, the foundation of traditional Western Apache culture and religion. The sacred land is in a rare grove of Emory oak trees nestled within a riparian niche  surrounded by spiraling rock formations on the Tonto National Forest about 60 miles east of Phoenix. 

The site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property because of its central role in Western Apache spiritual practices and numerous archeological artifacts. Chí’chil Biłdagoteel is where Western Apaches have performed traditional religious ceremonies for eons.

It is irreplaceable. 

And it is about to be destroyed by the proposed Resolution Copper Mine unless SOFA is enacted. 

Two of the world’s largest mining companies, Rio Tinto and BHP, both based in Australia and Britain, are poised to construct one of the largest copper mines in North America through their Resolution Copper subsidiary. The mining technique Resolution intends to use to extract copper ore would cause Chí’chil Biłdagoteel to collapse into a 1.8 mile wide, 1,000-foot-deep  crater. 

Resolution falsely claims that the mine will provide a quarter of America’s copper demand and that Resolution’s “steady home-grown copper supply will be a  competitive advantage for US manufacturing companies.” 

While there is no question that copper is an important material in a rapidly expanding renewable energy economy, it is unlikely Resolution’s raw copper will remain in the United States. 

The truth is, according to an Arizona Department of Transportation report, most, if not all  of the copper concentrate produced from the mine would be exported. The most likely destination  is China, where the state-controlled mining company Chinalco is the single largest shareholder in Rio Tinto, which is Resolution’s controlling partner. And China is by far the leading importer of raw copper globally and the world’s largest consumer of refined copper. 

Right now the United States only has three domestic copper smelters, two in Arizona and one in Utah. All three are dedicated to processing copper from existing mines. Resolution has stated it has no plans to build a new copper smelter, and any such effort would be met with fierce  opposition. 

Resolution’s proponents have also promoted the false assertion that copper is a critical mineral for America’s national security. But the United States does not include copper on its list of critical minerals. That’s because there are abundant copper supplies in many different  countries, including the United States. 

Passage of SOFA would also reverse the sneaky legislative action in 2014 that circumvented the will of Congress when a rider was attached without debate to a must-pass defense spending bill that mandates trading Oak Flat to Resolution, regardless of the massive damage the mine would inflict on cultural, environmental and water resources. 

The Inter-Tribal Association of Arizona, the National Congress of American Indians, and many Arizona tribes have passed resolutions in support of SOFA. An Arizona statewide poll shows overwhelming support from likely voters across the political spectrum for protecting Oak Flat. 

We urge our Congressional delegation, particularly Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark  Kelly and Rep. Tom O’Halleran, whose 1st Congressional District includes Oak Flat, to seize this moment and take historic action to protect Chí’chil Biłdagoteel for future generations.

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Chairman Terry Rambler, San Carlos Apache Tribe
Chairman Terry Rambler, San Carlos Apache Tribe

Terry Rambler has been chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe since 2010 after first being elected to the Tribal Council in 2004. He has served as chairman and vice chairman of the Arizona Indian Gaming Associationand as president and vice president of the Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona. Chairman Rambler is fluent in Apache and was a wildland firefighter for 10 years.