Copper Mine or Sacred Land: The Fight for Oak Flat

The group Apache Stronghold rallies against an Arizona copper mine that would create a nearly 2-mile-wide crater of public land at Oak Flat

  • By Jeanne Eder Rhodes // Photos by Tomás Karmelo Amaya
  • Conservation
  • Sep 27, 2023

Wendsler Nosie, founder of the mine-opposition group Apache Stronghold, stands at the edge of a cliff near Oak Flat Campground in Arizona. “All of this comes from the Earth, the very Earth we’re destroying,” he says.

ONCE AGAIN the prospect of a multimillion-dollar mine looms over Superior, Arizona, some 70 miles east of Phoenix. It’s a place with a long boom-and-bust history and a landscape of shuttered mines to prove it.

What remains of the industry these days is mostly broken-down equipment and piles of what looks like white dirt. The piles, or tailings, represent the waste left behind after a mineral—copper, silver, iron, lead, mercury, quartz and so on—is extracted from ore. Tailings can contain calcium oxide, silica, aluminum and iron oxide, all of which are harmful to plants, animals and humans. On a recent visit to the hillsides around town, no plants, animals or humans were in sight.

In prosperous times, Superior’s streets were lined with shops and restaurants, commercial success correlating to the demand for ore: peaking during the First and Second World Wars and crashing when prices for silver and other metals bottomed out. But in the Superior of today, lots of stores have boarded-up windows, and many of those that are open have limited hours. You might say the area is due for another boom—and fast. But a proposed mine that some hope will save Superior could take more than it gives.

“I see a complete disaster coming,” says Wendsler Nosie, former chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribe whose reservation lies to the east of the prospective operation.

Resolution Copper, a joint venture of two foreign companies, plans to extract what is estimated to be the largest copper ore deposit in North America at Oak Flat. To do so, Resolution reports it would hire some 1,500 workers, at about $134 million a year in pay, in addition to providing job training and creating mining-adjacent jobs. “Resolution could produce up to $61 billion in economic value for Arizona over the 60-year life of the project,” spokesperson Tyson Nansel says in an email. “We will boost state and local tax revenues by between $88 million and $113 million per year, while the federal government could see an extra $200 million in tax revenues per year.”

All parties agree the method of mining, known as block caving, eventually would cause the land above the mine to collapse, leaving a crater more than 1,000 feet deep and nearly 2 miles across. Opponents say that’s a problem for many reasons, particularly on property that belongs to the American public. A 740-acre parcel of U.S. federal land, the site is known by several names, including Oak Flat and Oak Flat Withdrawal, which includes Oak Flat Campground, which in turn is part of Tonto National Forest—or, to the Apache people who consider it sacred, Chi’chil Biłdagoteel.

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An image of Apache Leap against the sky.

Resolution Copper’s West Plant (below), in Superior, Arizona, sits less than 2 miles as the crow flies from the sacred rock formation known as Apache Leap (above). Mining operations have paused at the site as the company waits for the U.S. Forest Service to deliver its second Environmental Impact Statement, which likely will influence the mine’s legal standing.

In 2014, Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation primarily addressed military spending but included an 11th-hour addition from John McCain, the late U.S. senator from Arizona: a land swap between the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and Resolution Copper for Oak Flat.

“I remember that day clearly,” says Nosie, founder of Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit group that opposes the mine. “All I could do was pray these leaders—Congress, the Forest Service—would stick with what they had said for years, that this was not a good land transfer. But I realized these leaders were not there for the best interest, for the survival, of the people. It gave me a blueprint for what we needed to do.”

In 2021, Apache Stronghold sued the United States under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA. Signed into law in 1993, RFRA said the federal government had to have a compelling reason to substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion. Apache Stronghold argues that, by turning a sacred place into a 2-mile-wide hole, a mine at Oak Flat would not only burden Tribal members’ religious practice. It would destroy their ability to gather there altogether.

The Apache are not the only people to hold the site sacrosanct. In mounting its claim, Apache Stronghold hired the Tucson firm Anthropological Research to work with nine Tribes—four Apache, the Yavapai, Salt River Pima-Maricopa, Gila River Indian Community, Hopi and Zuni—in identifying cultural sites the Resolution mine would impact.

An image of Resolution Copper's West Plant in Oak Flat, Arizona.

Amy R. Juan of the Tohono O’odham Nation says visiting Skunk Camp, an ancient crossroads endangered by the mine, solidified her own decision to join Apache Stronghold. Based on architectural and environmental assessments, “This had been a gathering place for a lot of Indigenous Peoples,” she says, her own included. She shares a “mutual concern for protecting the land, for protecting the right to have access to our sacred sites—to the places we pray.”

Many Native religions hold that humans have a responsibility to care for the land and that the land should be venerated. But most Tribes do not discuss their ceremonies, nor the ceremonies’ locations, with non-Native People—a code of silence borne of historical precedent. In 1883, Congress banned Indigenous dancing and ceremonies, as well as the practicing of medicine people. Although the ban was repealed in 1934, it took until 1978 for Congress to affirm that Native religions merit legal protection.

Tribes today remain cautious: If you’re part of the culture, you know where rites are held. If you’re not, you don’t need to know. That said, community members will tell you they observe a number of ceremonies at Oak Flat—celebrating the sunrise, girls’ coming of age and sacred waters—as well as prayer circles and sweat lodges. It’s also common knowledge that Tribes revere certain rocks, such as the formations that stand east of Superior like fossilized guardians watching over the sacred area. The deaths of 75 Pinal Apache warriors at the site—now known as Apache Leap—has even made it into popular folklore. Legend has it, after being surprised by U.S. troops in the 1870s, the warriors were pushed to the edge of the precipice and jumped. You can still find obsidian nodules nearby that appear translucent when held up to the sun, rumored to be tears the Apache people cried over the deaths.

The land’s significance isn’t relegated to the past but is vital to the future, Tribal members say, with Oak Flat serving as a classroom for generations of Native children. “Growing up, my mom would take me to Oak Flat, and we would pick acorn,” recalls Naelyn Pike, Nosie’s granddaughter, a spokesperson for Apache Stronghold and executive assistant to the chair of the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council. The act of harvesting taught her “what the plants and land have provided for us and that we have to respect [the land],” she says. “In a way, we’re taking part of its life. When I look at Oak Flat, I see so much life—not only the life it gives me but the life of the land.”

Mine opponents say ties to the land are especially precious given the U.S. government’s track record. In past decades, children were routinely removed from reservations and placed with white families, aiming to assimilate them into mainstream culture and dilute Indigenous ways of life. It’s a dark period of U.S. history and one still being adjudicated today. In June, the Supreme Court upheld the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives preference to Native families in fostering and adopting Native children.

“Oak Flat is considered federal property,” Pike says. “But the reservation is also federal property. So, we’ve learned that both can be taken away with the stroke of a pen.”

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An image of a Gambel's quail perched on a branch.

Environmentalists say a copper mine could have devastating consequences for plant and animal species such as the Gambel’s quail (above) and the Emory oak (below), seen at Oak Flat this summer.

Along with places of religious and cultural importance, Oak Flat’s natural ecosystem would collapse when the crater gives way. Plants—including medicinal varieties such as sage, bear root, willow and greasewood—at the site would be wiped out, as would the Emory oak.

Currently plentiful at Oak Flat, the Emory is declining elsewhere in Arizona, impacted by drought, reduced groundwater, climate change, fire, livestock expansion and overharvesting. Because the oak keeps its leaves year-round, it’s considered valuable protective cover for wildlife, especially in winter. The acorns also provide a source of nutrition for livestock, as well as for deer, squirrels, birds and other animals, and for Indigenous People.

When the habitat goes, so does the wildlife. Bird species including ravens, crissal thrashers, white-breasted nuthatches and white-crowned sparrows could relocate or die out locally upon losing their shelter and hunting grounds. Hawks and vultures would move to other parts of Arizona to find food.

An image of an emory oak tree in front of a blue sky.

“There’s an incredible amount of wildlife dependent on the ecology of the area,” says Camilla Simon, executive director of Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO), a group that elevates Hispanic voices and visibility in decision-making related to public lands. HECHO, which officially became part of the National Wildlife Federation in 2019, joined the mine-opposition movement in 2021. “Hispanics have querencia, or love for the land, which describes belonging to—and the relationship to—a place,” Simon says. “This is public land that has been protected from mining since the Eisenhower administration. If we start to say you can mine on protected lands, that’s a slippery slope.”

According to Simon, “One of the biggest ecological impacts at Oak Flat is the depletion of groundwater in an already water-stressed area.” A 2021 study conducted for the San Carlos Apache Tribe by the consulting firm now called LEA Environmental found the Resolution mine would use about as much water every year for 40 years as a city of 140,000 people. “But that groundwater may not be there” in 40 years, Simon says. “The groundwater is ancient and finite; yet mining companies currently have unlimited access to it, while others have to make hard choices.”

Nansel, of Resolution, says talks with Tribal members “have helped significantly reshape the project,” including relocating some planned facilities “to avoid dozens of areas of cultural significance and hundreds of ancestral sites, medicinal plants, seeps and springs”—including Apache Leap, to which he says Resolution has agreed to relinquish land and mineral rights. “After mining, Resolution Copper will reclaim the area impacted,” Nansel says, a “maximum expected area” of about 1,800 acres.

But “all the vegetation will be gone,” Nosie says. “Once you deplete the aquifer, what do you have left? I see death coming.”

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An image of Naelyn Pike.

Naelyn Pike first gathered acorns at Oak Flat as a child. “Young people are taught that everything the Creator has given us is a blessing,” she says.

Some industry experts, including Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, say there’s insufficient demand for a new mine at Oak Flat—that existing mines could produce enough copper to satisfy the U.S. market. According to Featherstone, BHP, one of Resolution’s partners, closed a mine at San Manuel, northeast of Tucson, in 2002, leaving behind a 30-year supply.

That was a foolish decision, Featherstone says. As the global demand for alternative energy increases, copper is back in style. A natural electrical conduit, it powers EV batteries, air conditioners, wind turbines, TVs, cell phones and computers. “The mining companies use this rhetoric that we need to mine our way out of climate change,” he says. “Well, here in Arizona, there are a number of mines that aren’t operating at full capacity. We have places to get copper that don’t destroy a sacred ecological and recreational haven.”

Nansel points out that Resolution is repurposing the footprint of a former mine, Magma Copper. “To demonstrate our commitment to responsible operations and to making our community a cleaner and safer place to live and work, Resolution Copper voluntarily invested approximately $75 million over 15 years to restore 475 acres of the old Magma Copper West Plant,” he says.

Meanwhile, the Apache people and allies await the results of Apache Stronghold v. United States—one lawsuit among a possible thicket of legal challenges to the mine. This spring, an 11-judge panel in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case and said a decision would be forthcoming, but as of press time, no one knows when.

The court may be waiting for the results of a second USFS Environmental Impact Statement as guidance. The original statement, released in January 2021, was rescinded due to public concern in March 2021, less than two months into the Biden administration. “We have committed to providing at least 60 days’ notice before any future environmental analysis and draft record of decision is issued for the Resolution Copper Project,” says Adam Torruella, a public affairs specialist for the forest service’s southwestern region, in an email.

If Apache Stronghold loses its case, the group could appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Or claims filed by the San Carlos Apache Tribe could move forward. Or a kinship group could make a treaty-based claim, as in the 2002 case—also heard in the 9th Circuit—of the Dann sisters, who held individual property rights on lands under their continuous possession and whose suit the court declared distinct from a separate claim filed by the Western Shoshone people as a whole. “Or another Tribe, another nation, could bring charges in another circuit,” says Rebecca Tsosie, a professor at the University of Arizona’s James E. Rogers College of Law who is of Yaqui descent.

Nosie says he’ll keep fighting and that the greater public should, too. In March, the 9th Circuit Court allowed Resolution to join the U.S. government as a defendant in Apache Stronghold. “By them joining forces against us, it’s a clear indication of what America is about,” Nosie says. The government “sees these lands as revenue. This fight is against all of us.”

Pike agrees. “In our stories from long ago, it was said we could speak the same language as the plants and the animals, but we don’t have that privilege anymore,” she says. “I would love to see young people once again carry that relationship to land. But we have to have the land for that to happen.”

Jeanne Eder Rhodes, an enrolled member of the Sioux and Assiniboine nations, lives in Chandler, Arizona. Tomás Karmelo Amaya, born for the A:shiwi, Rarámuri and Yoeme tribes, is a photographer and film director based in the traditional homelands of the O’odham in Phoenix.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

Our Work: Tribal Partnerships »
Coming Full Circle »
Blog: Water Is Life—and Central To Environmental Justice for Indigenous Communities »

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