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By Debra Utacia Krol | Arizona Republic
(Disclosure: Rose Law Group represents Resolution Copper.)
Nearly a year after the Biden administration halted a land swap of one of the Apache people’s most sacred sites to a foreign mining company, the U.S. Forest Service has begun a new round of tribal consultation over what San Carlos Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler called “the future of Apache culture and religion.”
Barnie Gyant, Forest Service associate deputy chief, toured Oak Flat Thursday and heard from Apache elders, representatives of other tribes, religious leaders and environmentalists about the sacred site.
Gyant was sent by Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to lead government-to-government consultation with tribal nations in connection with the land swap, which would hand over 2,400 acres to Resolution Copper in exchange for private parcels owned by the mining giant.
Rep. Raúl Grijalva was also on hand for the meeting and a tour of the area. Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the Forest Service should have started on consultation 12 years ago. He also praised the “new set of eyes” Gyant brought to the process and hopes the agency official looks harder at the religious significance of Oak Flat and the effects to central Arizona’s water supply.
Grijalva wrote a letter to the White House and to the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture calling for the agencies to apply recent policy directives — such as the recent agreement to strengthen sacred and cultural site protection and an executive order governing the use of traditional ecological knowledge in policy decisions — to all ongoing federal reviews and decisions on the Resolution copper mine.
Although Indigenous peoples consider Oak Flat sacred, the land is controlled by the government, which means tribal officials must work with federal agencies when land use decisions are debated.
In a recording of Thursday’s meeting provided to The Arizona Republic, Gyant said he had “great respect” for elders, and after hearing from several people about the Resolution Copper issue, he knew he would have to come see what he called a “holy site” and ask questions. But he added, “there are some things that are not in my decision space, but I do have the ability to try to influence.”
Resolution Copper wants to exact the copper from Oak Flat, a campground that is part of the Tonto National Forest in Miami, Arizona. The method of extraction that the mining company wants to use will eventually create a giant sinkhole on land sacred to the Apache.
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