By Leon Thompson
November 11, 2015 (Washington D. C.) -- Senator Bernie Sanders and Sen. Tammy Baldwin introduced legislation this week to stop the transfer of federal land to a foreign-owned corporation which plans to develop the largest copper mine in North America and reap $61 billion dollars from U.S. taxpayer assets from land sacred to Native Americans.
The land, known as Oak Flat, is a plateau hidden from the Sonoran desert below by towering cliffs known as Apache Leap. The land is an oasis concealed by mountain peaks, located in the Tonto National Forest near the ghostlike mining town of Superior Arizona.
The night before voting to approve the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act Sen. John McCain slipped in a provision that approved the transfer of Oak Flat to a private foreign corporation Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Resolution Copper to mine the land using a ‘block cave’ method which will create a crater two miles long and a thousand feet deep.
“Too many times our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the profits of huge corporations put ahead of their sovereign rights,” Sanders said. “It is wrong that a backroom deal in Washington could lead to the destruction of a sacred area that is so important to so many. We must defend the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are standing in opposition to this giveaway of our natural resources to foreign corporations.”
Oak Flat has been part of Apache history for centuries. Oak Flat and the Tonto National Forest was established in 1905 from the ancestral homelands of the Tonto Apache and other Native Americans who were forcibly removed at gunpoint from the Oak Flat area by the U.S. Army in the 1880s. The Apaches were held as prisoners of war until the early 1900s.
It is easy to see why this oasis in the Sonoran Desert is sacred to the Apache. Once on top of the plateau one has the feeling of entering a different world from the Sonoran desert below. Surrounded by mountain peaks, ancient Oak trees with trunks the size of boulders, cool water from springs form natural pools in the shade, water flows from the Gaan Creek and Queen Creek Canyon. There are nearly 2000 hiking and climbing trails.
The Resolution copper mining company estimates that the crater at Oak Flat resulting from the underground block-cave mining would be two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep at the center. The mine would be the largest excavation project in North America leaving a crater so large it will be visible from outer space. Ground water and sub-terrain aquifers percolate into the caverns becoming lifeless deadly poison ponds birds won’t even land on.
The company estimates 1.7 billion tons of mine waste tailings and billions of gallons of sulfuric acid polluted water will remain in the 760-acre Oak Flat area which was deemed off-limits to future mining by a 1955 land order signed by President Dwight Eisenhower.
Because of their religious, historical and cultural value, Oak Flat and the Tonto National Forest are protected under the National Historic Preservation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and most of all the will of the American people who have called for this kind of egregious political payoffs to end.
Representative Raúl Grijalva from Tucson introduced the bill in the House of Representatives earlier this year and the legislation currently has 36 bipartisan co-sponsors.
The Save Oak Flat Act would repeal Section 3003 from the Defense Authorization Act and prevent a dangerous legal precedent concerning important tribal areas located on federal lands like the Ocotillo windfarm in San Diego County and oil pipelines across pristine wild rice lakes in Minnesota.
One opponent to the Oak Flat proposal said, “People from across the country, and even around the world, are outraged by what’s happened with Oak Flat and won’t stand by to see our public lands and American Indian sacred sites be destroyed for profits.”
On Wednesday, the signatures of over a million people, including many from San Diego, were submitted in favor of saving Oak Flat. The signatures were turned in ahead of the House Natural Resources Committee forum on protecting sacred American Indian sites.
“Oak Flat should be protected, not plundered,” asserted Nick Kimbrell, a senior campaigner with Avaaz. “Over a million people in the U.S. and around the world are calling on Congress to stop this act of cultural vandalism and set a precedent for governments everywhere to protect native peoples and their sacred sites.”