Environment | National | Politics

Mine on sacred Apache site in Arizona remains a hot political issue






In October 2014, Nizhoni Pike, a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, held a coming-of-age ceremony at Oak Flat, a sacred site in Arizona that will be affected by a controversial copper mine. Photo by Anna Jeffrey for The Apache Messenger

A controversial copper mine that the San Carlos Apache Tribe of Arizona has been fighting for more than three years continues to make waves on the national political scene.

What started off as a seemingly obscure battle between the tribe and its Congressional delegation has resulted in the conviction of a Republican lawmaker, a slew of belittling actions from another Republican, a major lobbying campaign in Indian Country and a cross-country, media-grabbing caravan to the U.S. Capitol. The dispute even drew a response from the White House after more than 104,000 people around the world signed a petition against the proposed development.

The issue stands to gain even more attention in a highly-charged political year as Jane Sanders, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, travels to Arizona to meet with the Apache Stronghold on Sunday. The group, which was started by San Carlos Apache council member Wendsler Nosie Sr., has stirred up fierce opposition to the mine due to the feared impacts on Oak Flat, an important ceremonial and gathering site.

While the visit might not draw the same response as one by the candidate himself, it helps keep Oak Flat in the news. That's important because the Save Oak Flat Act, a bill that would stop the mine, is all but dead in the 114th Congress.


With little financial support, the Apache Stronghold, a group of consisting primarily of members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, traveled 2,000 miles from Arizona to Washington, D.C. for a protest at the U.S. Capitol on July 22, 2015. Photo by Indianz.Com

Neither S.2242, which was introduced by the Senator from Vermont last November, nor H.R.2811, the companion that was introduced in the House last June, have moved forward. And they aren't likely to gain traction because most members of the Arizona Congressional delegation have supported the controversial mine despite its sketchy past.

Yet the Apache Stronghold -- a group that has the support of the San Carlos government yet depends almost entirely on volunteers, including several tribal youth -- has managed to keep Oak Flat on the agenda by keeping Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) on his toes. That's important because he continues to push the story to the media in what appears to be a futile attempt to discredit Nosie and other tribal leaders without ever mentioning their names.

In the last two weeks alone, Gosar managed to send out not just one or two but three press releases about Oak Flat. His effort appears strange considering that he's on the winning side of the debate -- the Resolution Copper mine will go forward no matter what the Apache Stronghold says or does because the National Defense Authorization Act, the federal law that authorized a land swap for the project, envisions no other alternative.

And the specific matter that prompted Gosar's missives -- the placement of Oak Flat on the National Register of Historic Places -- does not affect the mine either although he claims it could "undermine" the $60 million development. The National Park Service has already confirmed as much.


The Apache Stronghold was denied a meeting with Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Arizona) after a rally at the U.S. Capitol on July 22, 2015. Photo from Facebook

"Neither a listing nor a determination of eligibility for listing requires or otherwise guarantees that a historic property cannot be modified or even destroyed," an NPS official told Gosar in a letter that was obtained by Cronkite News.

The Chi'chil Bildagoteel Historic District -- an area that includes Oak Flat -- was officially placed on the register on March 4 despite Gosar's objections.

Gosar's repeated missives also unintentionally place Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona) in a negative light. She has long supported the copper mine but, unlike her colleague, she didn't publicize her opposition to the NPS listing on her official government website.

She didn't need to, though, because Gosar repeatedly mentioned her in his press releases, even the one that publicizes two letters to the Obama administration that she never signed onto.


Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Arizona) spent election night in November 2014 in Tuba City, Arizona, a community on the Navajo Nation. Photo from Kirkpatrick For Arizona / Facebook

Kirkpatrick's support for the mine hasn't emerged as an issue in her campaign for U.S. Senate against John McCain, the Republican incumbent. McCain too supports the project and is widely deemed to have been responsible for putting Section 3003 into the defense bill because he serves as chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee.

But Kirkpatrick has made a big effort of touting her Indian Country connections -- she was born and raised on the Fort Apache Reservation, the home of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, whose leaders oppose the mine. She represents Arizona's 1st Congressional district, which is home to more Native Americans than any other in the nation.

McCain isn't lacking in tribal ties either, having served two times as chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and having sponsored several major pieces of Indian legislation. His standing in Indian Country, however, suffered after he started to focus on the negative aspects of the Indian gaming industry, including off-reservation gaming and the Jack Abramoff scandal. But he remains well liked among Arizona tribal leaders.

Polls continue to show Kirkpatrick and McCain locked in a tight race, assuming both win their parties' respective nominations.

Federal Register Notice:
National Register of Historic Places; Notification of Extension of Comment Period for Pending Nomination of Chi'chil Bildagoteel (Oak Flats) Historic District (February 29, 2016)

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