Copper mine bill sparks debate over Native American sacred lands

The House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill that some say will destroy sacred ground.

A bipartisan bill introduced by Arizona Rep. Republican Paul Gosar and Democratic Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick would swap more than 2,000 acres of federal forestland in exchange for more than 5,000 acres owned by Resolution Copper Mining — a joint venture by mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

Congress may vote as early as Thursday to approve the controversial land swap, a move that is hotly contested by some Native Americans and local environmentalists.

“If you can imagine five Super Bowls in Superior every year for 60 years, that’s the level of economic boost and economic activity this mine is going to generate,” said Andrew Taplin, Resolution Copper Mining’s project director.

However, critics argue that the mine will not only alter the landscape permanently, but also be built on a Native American holy site.

“The sticking point boils down to whether international mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton should dig for copper destroying areas sacred to the Apache Tribe and enjoyed by campers, climbers, and other recreationalists,” writes Aaron Mintzes with the environmental group Earthworks, which opposes the mine.

A Washington, D.C.-based lobbying firm called Mapetsi has also joined in on the fight. The group has been retained by the San Carlos Apache Tribe who live near the proposed mining site.

The San Carlos Apaches have been highly critical of the mining site, issuing a study that found that Resolution Copper Mining greatly exaggerated the economic benefits to mining near the Tonto National Forest.

Mapesti has played up the issue of sacred lands being violated by the mining operation, which would violate an alleged holy place called Oak Flat.

“This public land at Oak Flat is a place of worship for the Apache, Yavapai, and other tribes in the region,” Mapetsi’s Jesse Renteria wrote in a September 19 email to a congressional staffer. “Native Americans have prayed, gathered medical herbs and plants, healed in holy perennial springs, and performed religious ceremonies at Oak Flat for hundreds of years. The United States should ensure that they can continue to do so in perpetuity.”