News

Oak Flat is Safe—For Now

The Forest Service withdrew its environmental impact statement for the controversial project on March 1—but the sacred site's reprieve could be temporary.

A plan to establish a copper mine at Oak Flat, a sacred Apache and Yavapai site and popular camping destination in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest, is temporarily on hold after the Forest Service revoked its environmental impact statement for the project on March 1.

The Forest Service was set to trade 2,422 acres of Oak Flat to international mining company Rio Tinto’s project Resolution Copper in March. In exchange, the government would have received 5,459 acres of land the company owned nearby. A 2014 law that President Obama signed as part of a defense package mandates that the government makes the swap within the 60 days following the publication of the Final Environmental Impact Statement and Record of Decision for the project, which the outgoing Trump administration published in January.

In a statement, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that it had “concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by Tribes and the public and the project’s impacts to these important resources and ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law.”

Environmental groups and Native advocacy organizations had sued to block the swap, alleging that the environmental impact assessment had been rushed and deficient, and that the planned copper mine would irreparably harm local wildlife and put groundwater at risk. In the suit, the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, the Center for Biological Diversity, and their co-plaintiffs argued that planned mining operations would transform the sacred area, known as Chich’il Bildagoteel in the Apache language, into a “rubbleized crater” about two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep.

While Rio Tinto didn’t dispute that mining would eventually cause the ground to sink, it said it was committed to keeping the area accessible for as long as possible. On February 25, it published a proposed management plan for the area, which would see the company maintaining the 16-site campground and surrounding high-desert chaparral landscape until mining operations made its closure necessary.

In a news release from Apache Stronghold, one of the groups appealing the land swap, attorney Luke Goodrich called the decision a temporary retreat.

“The Government is still planning on the transfer and destruction of Oak Flat,” Goodrich said. “Oak Flat still needs legal protection. And if the Government is acting in good faith, it should not oppose a court order protecting Oak Flat while the litigation proceeds.”