The Oak Flat land in Arizona is holy to the Apaches. A mining company wants to blow a two-mile-wide hole in it.
Some of Wendsler Nosie Sr.’s earliest memories are set in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. “I was about 3 or 4 years old,” the now 60-year-old Apache man recalls on a sparkling fall day, sitting beside his granddaughter at a picnic table under a tall oak tree. “We used to stop here at Oak Flat and my mother would pray.”
The Oak Flat area, which lies within the national forest, is sacred to the Apache people and central to the tribe’s origin story. For centuries before European settlers came, young girls gathered at this place ― called Chi’chil Bildagoteel in Apache ― for their coming-of-age ceremony. Apaches still visit in the spring to collect medicinal plants and in the fall to harvest Emery oak acorns, a protein-rich staple.
But if Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of international mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, gets its way, a large part of the site will disappear forever, sinking into a hole two miles wide and deep enough to hold three Statues of Liberty stacked on top of one another.
Nosie nods toward the manzanita and agave plants that ring the Oak Flat campground, the finches flitting between branches overhead, the truck-sized boulders (some covered with petroglyphs) and the deep pools of the Ga’an Canyon river where the Apache deities live. “They’re going to murder this place,” he says. This wasn’t supposed to happen.
In 1955, the Eisenhower administration placed Oak Flat off-limits to mining. Then in the early 2000s, Resolution Copper began working to strip the area of that protection. Bills to remove the mining ban were regularly introduced in Congress and just as regularly defeated. In December 2014, this congressional version of whack-a-mole came to an end when then-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) engineered a stealth maneuver.
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