Trump Rushes to Hand Over Sacred Indigenous Land to Mining Companies

Tonto National Forest. Image: Janet Ward/NOAA/Wikipedia

by Amy Lupica, ODP Contributing Writer

The Trump administration is continuing its hail-Mary attempt to develop public lands, even as the GSA announces it will begin the transition of power to the Biden administration. Trump has embarked on a rushed effort to transfer ownership of south-eastern Arizona’s Oak Flat, considered holy by the Apache people, to a mining company with a history of destroying Aboriginal lands in Australia. The beneficiaries of the deal will be Resolution Copper and its parent firms, mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP.

Just last month, tribes found out that the completion of the environmental review process had been moved up by a full year. Many are suspicious of the timing, as Indigenous groups are struggling disproportionately to fend off the dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why This Matters: In its final hours, the Trump administration is trying to cement a legacy of deregulation and environmental destruction. During his tenure, Trump rolled back over 100 environmental regulations, including recently opening the Arctic national wildlife refuge to oil and gas drilling and rolling back protections on endangered gray wolves. This is not his first assault on Indigenous lands.

The Trump administration has a track record of infringing on Indigenous sovereignty, prompting Indigenous groups to fight back. In response to the opening of the Tongass in Alaska, 11 tribes petitioned the USDA to implement new rules requiring the Forest Service to consult with tribes and strengthen the existing Tribal Consultation policy. 

At the Buzzer: For the last 6 years, the Forest Service has been carrying out the environmental review of a proposal to exchange federally owned Oak Flat for private land owned by Resolution Copper. San Carlos Apache tribal member Wendsler Nosie Sr. has been sleeping in a teepee on Oak Flat since January, hoping to send a message, “We were in the fourth quarter with two minutes left in the game. And then Trump cheated so now we only have one minute left. Everybody has to mobilize now to fight this.”

Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) says that the timing of the Trump administration’s latest effort was deliberately planned to avoid further backlash from the dozen south-western Native tribes with cultural ties to Oak Flat. 

The Trump administration is cutting corners and doing a rushed job just to take care of Rio Tinto,” he said. “The fact they are doing it during COVID makes it even more disgusting. Trump and Rio Tinto know the tribes’ reaction would be very strong and public under normal circumstances but the tribes are trying to save their people right now.” 

The Long Fight: Resolution Copper has been trying to get its hands on this land since 1995 when it was discovered that the world’s largest copper deposits lie just 7,000 feet beneath Oak Flat. The proposed mining sites span 11 square miles of land containing Apache burial grounds, sacred sites, petroglyphs, and medicinal plants, all of which would be destroyed by mining operations. Resolution plans to extract 1.4 million tons of copper ore by blasting beneath the surface, a plan that would leave behind a crater, 1,000 feet deep and almost two miles wide.

Resolution Copper has claimed it is taking environmental precautions and vowed that it will monitor geologic activity and collaborate with tribes during the mining process. Tribes, however, are wary because of Resolution Copper’s parent company, Rio Tinto’s, anti-Indigenous past. Just last May, Rio Tinto blasted a 46,000-year-old aboriginal site in Australia, prompting national outcry and leading to the resignation of the CEO and two other top executives.

Grijalva says that rushing the environmental review will spell similar disaster for Apache sacred sites. “If the land exchange happens, it will be difficult to roll back,” he said.That is why this cannot be rushed. The Forest Service must do their due diligence because of what is at stake. The damage is irreparable.”


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