In a victory for Indigenous rights and conservation activists, the Forest Service rescinded its decision to permit a controversial mining project to be built within Arizona’s Tonto National Forest on Monday.
The decision comes six weeks after the subagency issued an environmental impact statement greenlighting the project on land known as Oak Flat in January. The move reflects the sea change between the Biden and Trump administrations’ approaches to land, extraction, and Indigenous rights.
“This is tremendous news for Oak Flat, tribal communities and everyone who loves this special place,” Randy Serraglio, a conservation advocate at the Center for Biological Diversity, wrote in an email.
Oak Flat is a lush, 6.7-square-mile (17.4-square-kilometer) stretch of forest just east of Phoenix. To the local Apache people, who call it Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, the area is holy. It lies at the center of four sacred mountains, and has been the site of spiritual and cultural ceremonies for centuries. The richly biodiverse oak groves it contains are important sources of acorns and other food sources for the Apache. It is also the location of burial sites and ancient rock carvings, as well as a popular campsite.
Despite its significance, Resolution Copper—a joint venture by mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP—have been gunning to turn the area into one of the largest copper mines in the country. To do so, the firm wants to use a process called block caving to extract the copper reserves, leaving irreversible craters on the land’s surface and destroying its greenery.
The environmental impact report the Trump-era Forest Service issued in January was a necessary step to transfer ownership of the site to Resolution Copper, a process which was set to be completed in mid-March. But Apache activists and supporters noted that the statement was fast-tracked. In fact, it was not originally scheduled to be released until December 2021 but was rushed out in the final week of the Trump presidency—a sign that the administration aimed to speed the process before President Joe Biden’s inauguration.
“We’re grateful that the Biden administration recognized that the fast-tracked environmental analysis was a sham and we know a thorough review will show a mine at Oak Flat will do irreparable damage,” said Serraglio. “These sacred lands should never be handed over to a mining company.
Indigenous organizers have been fighting the transfer of ownership of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper, filing lawsuits demanding a federal judge halt the process. Last Tuesday, Apache Stronghold, a group advocating for the protection of Oak Flat, filed an emergency appeal demanding the site stay under Apache domain. The group alleged that the transfer would violate the U.S. Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
According to Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket Law who is representing Apache Stronghold, the Forest Service revoked their environmental impact statement just six hours before its deadline to reply to that appeal. The government, he said on Twitter, “knows it’s in trouble in court.” The Forest Service pulling their approval is a good sign for the future preservation of Oak Flat.
“The department is taking this step to provide an opportunity for the agency to conduct a thorough review based on significant input received from collaborators, partners, and the public since these documents were released,” the agency said in its announcement. It said the process could take months, which indicates that the transfer won’t happen when it was slated to next month.
The move follows other actions undertaken by the Biden administration to respect Indigenous rights. In his first week in office, Biden sent a memo to all federal agencies telling them improve relationships with Indigenous tribes and strengthen consultation. He has also rescinded permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, opposed by tribes and other groups alike, and nominated Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet nominee ever, to oversee the Department of Interior.
But while rescinding the Oak Flat environmental impact statement is another step, it doesn’t end the threat to the sacred site. Goodrich tweeted that the move is not a permanent fix because while it puts the pause on the transfer of land, it doesn’t halt it altogether. That’s why the Biden administration should take the next step of issuing permanent protections for the land so it stays in Apache control.
“These sacred lands should never be handed over to a mining company and we won’t stop until they’re protected for good.” Serraglio.