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Apache Stronghold protesters deliver message to Sen. Mark Kelly: Save Oak Flat

Arizona Republic logo Arizona Republic 12/3/2021 Debra Utacia Krol, Arizona Republic

A small, vocal group of tribal elders and students converged on U.S. Sen. Mark Kelly’s Phoenix office Thursday to deliver a message: Save Oak Flat from destruction.

The San Carlos Apache elders, ranging in age from 59 to 90, and a group of students from Brophy and Xavier Preparatory schools said they were concerned that work had stopped on an effort to block a land swap that would clear the way for a huge copper mine east of Phoenix in an area considered sacred by the Apaches and other Indigenous peoples.

"Remember, Senator Kelly, that the tribes in Arizona voted you into office," San Carlos Apache member Sandra Rambler called out through a megaphone. "And don't you forget that, because we'll be waiting for you at the next election. We'll be waiting with signs. We'll be waiting with our vote. We're registering our people to vote now and we want to know what you're doing." 

Elders from the San Carlos Apache Tribe attend a protest demanding support to save Oak Flat from mining, at the office of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., in Phoenix on Dec. 2, 2021. © Joel Angel Juarez/The Republic Elders from the San Carlos Apache Tribe attend a protest demanding support to save Oak Flat from mining, at the office of Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., in Phoenix on Dec. 2, 2021.

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Kelly, D-Ariz., was in Washington, D.C., during the protest.

A House committee approved a bill in May to stop the exchange of 2,200 acres of Tonto National Forest land for private parcels owned by British-Australian mining firm Resolution Copper, but the measure has since stalled. 

Separately, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is weighing a lawsuit filed by grassroots group Apache Stronghold, headed by former San Carlos Apache Chairman Wendsler Nosie, to stop the swap, which was originally authorized in December 2014. 

And a pro-conservation group of Western states' leaders urged the Interior Department to overhaul mining permit regulations, although the mine proposal at Oak Flat would not be affected by tougher rules. 

Mine would destroy Oak Flat, riparian zone

The forest land included in the swap is thought to hold one of the nation’s largest remaining ore bodies and had been under a mining withdrawal since the Eisenhower administration.

To extract the copper ore, Resolution plans to use a recently developed method known as block cave mining. Excavations are tunneled underneath the ore body and the resulting tunnels are systematically collapsed and the ore moved through another tunnel to a crushing facility. Eventually, the ground under Oak Flat, known to Apache peoples as Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, would subside, leaving behind a crater about 1,000 feet deep and nearly 2 miles across.

Environmentalists and some hydrologists fear that millennial-old groundwater would be contaminated, and the aquifers that currently hold those waters would collapse, eliminating a valuable water storage system in central Arizona. They also say one of Arizona’s few remaining riparian zones would be eliminated, reducing habitat and shelter for a number of species.

Resolution contends that the water required for mining, crushing and processing the ore for transport to a manufacturing facility has been set aside and would not affect water supplies. One hydrologist estimated the water needed was equivalent to what a city of 140,000 people would use annually for the mine’s 40-year life span.

Resolution also said that it plans to use new technology to reduce the water contained in the tailings, the materials left over from mining and crushing.

But Apache Stronghold and its allies aren’t buying the mine’s claims.

Protesters: 'Tribes in Arizona voted you into office'

About 20 people gathered at Kelly's office to state their case on Thursday. Rambler spoke for the half-dozen elders who made the two-hour drive from Bylas, about 110 miles east of Phoenix. They stood at the corner of 22nd Street and Camelback Road, holding signs, waving to passersby who tooted their horns in solidarity, and wielding megaphones to make their message heard over the din of cars and trucks. 

A number of elders who used to come out to have their say on the issue have died or are in poor health, Rambler said. 

"Our eldest warrior is now 95 years old and she wasn't able to join us today," Rambler said. "And she was sad that she can't come and be with us."

"We would like for (Kelly) to take a stance," said Aiden Parr, a senior at Brophy and a member of the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, "because in government, noncompliance is essentially complying with the other side."

Parr called for Kelly to "outspokenly" speak out in support of the Save Oak Flat Act and to co-sponsor the bill in the Senate.

The students were also concerned that if Oak Flat is destroyed, the mining work would set a dangerous precedent, making other Native cultural sites more vulnerable to destruction for similar projects. 

The group entered Kelly's office and handed a staffer a stack of several hundred postcards from Brophy and Xavier students urging the senator to support the land swap repeal, along with copies of resolutions issued by tribe across the U.S. in support of the Apache peoples' effort to prevent the mine project. 

Sacred spaces: Indigenous people find legal, cultural barriers to guard lands

Group seeks stronger mining permit regulations

Western Leaders Network, a consortium of pro-conservation local officials in eight Western states, wrote Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and recently confirmed Bureau of Land Management Director Tracy Stone-Manning, asking the two officials to update the permitting process for new mines. 

The letter, signed by 61 tribal and local elected officials, follows in the wake of a formal request from environmentalists and tribes to rewrite the rules administering the General Mining Act of 1872. The group also called for the government to prioritize recycling the metals and rare earths that building a new renewable energy grid will require over new mines.  

“The timing was good for us to get the attention of Secretary Haaland and the new director of BLM as she settles into her new job,” said Gwen Lachelt, Western Leaders Network’s director. “We wanted to do this much earlier, but we felt because of everything else going on like the oil and gas report 'America the Beautiful' and the 30x30 movement, we felt we’d have a better chance of getting people’s attention now.”

Four tribal leaders from Arizona signed the letter.

Lachelt has a personal stake in reforming mining regulations: She was a La Plata, Colorado, county commissioner during the Gold King mining waste spill in August 2015. The spill sent millions of gallons of toxic-laden waters down the Animas and San Juan rivers and eventually into Lake Powell, and the effects are still being felt in Colorado, New Mexico and on the Navajo Nation.

Save Oak Flat bill stalls

The elders and students expressed frustration at the lack of movement on the Save Oak Flat Act in Congress. After it failed to come up for a full House vote, U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., submitted the bill as an amendment to this year’s defense appropriations bill in October, but that effort failed. 

Now, mine opponents, including Rambler, said they want Kelly to insert the Oak Flat repeal bill into the Senate's version of the defense bill, known as the NDAA. 

A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran, whose district includes Oak Flat, said he did not have final control over the precise measures included or omitted from the infrastructure bill.

"Rep. O'Halleran is eager to see what provisions of the bill make it through the Senate’s processes and into the final package," she said.

During a press conference at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport on Nov. 19, The Arizona Republic asked Kelly and U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema about their stance on mining's effects on Native peoples, since building a new renewable energy grid will require a great deal of copper, lithium, cobalt and a variety of rare earths. 

Sinema said she and two other senators discussed metals and mining while developing the infrastructure bill.

"We're thinking about how to do this in a way that is less extractive, and more sustainable in the long term," she said.

"We're a mining state," said Kelly, citing the copper, gold, silver and, at one time, uranium that has been dug out of Arizona soils. "And we've got environmental issues because of those that we have to address."

He said information has surfaced about the impacts that chemicals and minerals cause in water supplies.

"We've got to do things to make sure that we have clean water," Kelly said, adding that the infrastructure bill provides resources to ensure the state's water is clean or can be cleaned up. "Clean water and clean air are critical, and that's why in this legislation, we have put a focus on that," he said.

The organization that's working to reunite the scattered Chiricahua and Warm Springs Apache bands is keeping a close eye on the proceedings.

"The Chiricahua Apache Nation is disappointed but not surprised that the political leadership of the United States has failed to protect lands sacred to all Nde," said William Tooahyaysay Bradford, attorney general of the tribe.

"But it is not only Natives who should be concerned about the pending fate of Chí’chil Biłdagoteel," he said. "What happens there portends the future of the rights of religion, speech and association of all Americans."

Bradford likened Oak Flat to the miner's canary of political discourse.

"If Congress is able to transfer land once stolen from the Nde people to private foreign mining corporations without consideration of Native rights based in treaties, the U.S. Constitution, statutes and natural law, and do so without intervention by the executive branch, that same Congress and executive branch can divest non-Natives of these rights using the case of Chí’chil Biłdagoteel as an example," Bradford said.

Bradford said people should consider whether the "poison gas" in the contemporary political atmosphere is enough to kill property rights for all Americans.

"The Chiricahua Apache Nation hopes that Congress will enact the Save Oak Flat Act, and we send our prayers to Dr. Wendsler Nosie, to his coalition, to all Native peoples, and to everyone everywhere who believes in principles such as honor, fair dealings and the protection of sacred rights."

Debra Krol reports on Indigenous communities at the confluence of climate, culture and commerce in Arizona and the Intermountain West. Reach Krol at debra.krol@azcentral.com. Follow her on Twitter at @debkrol

Coverage of Indigenous issues at the intersection of climate, culture and commerce is supported by the Catena Foundation.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Apache Stronghold protesters deliver message to Sen. Mark Kelly: Save Oak Flat

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