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Great Plains tribes call for removal of land swap from defense bill

Robert Shepherd, the vice chairman of the Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association was among 12 tribal leaders who met with President Barack Obama last week in advance of the White House Tribal Nations Conference. Photo from Facebook

The Great Plains Tribal Chairman's Association is calling on the Senate to kill a controversial land swap that paves the way for a huge copper mine on sacred Apache sites in Arizona.

Section 3003 of the National Defense Authorization Act authorizes the federal government to transfer 2,400 acres in the Tonto National Forest to Resolution Copper. The firm -- which is controlled by two multi-billion dollar foreign corporations -- plans to use the land for a mine that will affect sacred food, medicinal and ceremonial sites.

"Section 3003 would transfer a place of worship held sacred by Arizona tribes to a foreign-owned mining company for a copper mine that will forever destroy the tribes’ religious practices," Robert Shepherd, the vice chair of the GPTCA, said in a letter to key members of the Senate. "The proposal will irrevocably harm the region’s water supply and quality."

The 1,648-page defense package has been controversial since its release and passage in the House last week. It's expected to clear the Senate this week as the 113th Congress comes to a close.

The Obama administration, through Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, has criticized the inclusion of the Resolution Copper deal in the bill. But President Barack Obama -- who was introduced at the White House Tribal Nations Conference last week by Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and an outspoken opponent of the mine -- has not said he will veto it.

In October, Nizhoni Pike, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, held a coming-of-age ceremony in an area that will be affected by the land swap and the Resolution Copper mine. Photo by Anna Jeffrey for The Apache Messenger

Members of Arizona's Congressional delegation have been pushing for the mine for years but they have failed to gain enough support. When Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) was forced to pull H.R.687, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, from the floor in June, he accused San Carlos Apache leaders of lying to Indian Country about the project.

"The land exchange cannot pass Congress on its own merits," Shepherd said in his letter. "Attaching this provision as a rider to NDAA represents the antithesis of democracy."

Supporters say the bill requires the Department of Agriculture to consult with Apache tribes before the land swap is finalized. But the 16 Great Plains tribes of North Dakota, South Dakota and Nebraska note that nothing will prevent the mine from going through.

"In Section 3003, the outcome is pre-determined, rendering tribal views and public comments meaningless," Shepherd wrote.

A petition on whitehouse.gov to stop the land swap has garnered nearly 13,500 signatures as of this afternoon.

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