Copper mine bill sparks debate over Native American sacred lands

Michael Bastasch | Energy Editor

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.”

“Former Rep. Ron Paul voted against this same bill in the 112th Congress because he viewed it as an earmarked giveaway of American assets to foreign owned mining companies where one of the companies, Rio Tinto, is partly owned by China and has ties with Iran in a uranium mine in Namibia,” Debbie Ho, Mapesti’s founder, told The Daily Caller News Foundation in an email.

The two areas in question are called Oak Flat and Apache Leap. According to Earthworks, the site became sacred after Apache warriors leaped to their deaths rather than surrender to the U.S. Cavalry in the 1870s.

However, the claim that the mine would be built on sacred grounds was denied by the U.S. Forestry Service. The Service reviewed the proposed mining area in 2010 and found that it did not conflict with any of the sacred tribal lands in the area.

Gosar and Kirkpatrick’s bill actually requires Resolution Copper to hand over 110 acres of Apache Leap to the federal government for conservation and prohibits all mining or extraction operations in the area.

One of Mapetsi’s top clients has been involved in this issue before. That time, the firm’s client was the one building on sacred lands.

Last year, the Muscogee Creek Nation filed a lawsuit to prevent the Poarch Band of Creek Indians from building a casino on Muscogee ceremonial burial grounds. According to the lawsuit, the Poarch Band even moved about 57 sets of human burials last April to build a $246 million casino in the area known as Hickory Ground.

Indian Country Today Media Network reports that: “Hickory Ground was the last capitol of the National Council of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The sacred place includes a ceremonial ground, a tribal burial ground and individual graves. The current day Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s ancestors lived and were buried there before the tribe was forced from its Alabama homeland on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma. The sacred site is now held in trust by the Interior Department for the Poarch Band of Creek Indians.”

The Poarch Band is one of Mapetsi’s biggest clients, spending $570,000 on lobbying throughout 2012, according to Influence Explorer.

The Poarch Band acquired the land in 1984 with help from the state of Alabama and a grant the U.S. Interior Department. However, the Poarch tribe promised that “Acquisition will prevent development on the property” in applying for the federal grant. Just a few years after the land was taken into trust, the Poarch unveiled plans to build a casino there.

But a few years after Hickory Ground was taken into trust, the Poarch Band unveiled plans to develop a gaming facility there.

The Mapetsi group did not respond to TheDCNF’s request for comment about the Poarch Band’s sacred ground troubles.

The House is set to vote on the mining bill on Thursday and it is expected to pass.

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