Oak Flat

Oak Flat is located in the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona, just a few miles east of the town of Superior. This stunning area is sacred land to Western Apache tribes, including the nearby San Carlos Apache. For many centuries Oak Flat has played a fundamental role in Apache culture. Countless generations of Apaches have used the site for religious and coming-of-age ceremonies and have gathered medicinal plants and acorns from its majestic oaks. Adjacent Ga'an Canyon is a place “where the spiritual beings that represent healing live,” according to a San Carlos tribal historic preservation officer. Another tribal expert has said that Oak Flat is “the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented.”

Oak Flat also is an important part of America's public-land heritage. The site is world renowned for rock climbing, thanks to its beautiful and impressive rock formations. The endangered Arizona hedgehog cactus is found there, and an endangered ocelot, sadly, was killed on the highway just a few miles from the popular Oak Flat campground. The cool, perennial waters of Ga'an Canyon house a diversity of bird and aquatic life.

Former  San Carlos Chairman, Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr., at Oak Flat, 2020
Former San Carlos Chairman, Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr., at Oak Flat, 2020. Photo by Steve Pavey.

BACKGROUND

But this sacred place of beauty, healing and prayer is threatened with destruction by a massive copper mine. In late December 2014, in a midnight rider on a must-pass defense funding bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) led the charge to push through a land swap that would trade away Oak Flat to international mining behemoth Rio Tinto for its proposed Resolution Copper Mine, despite the fact that the area was withdrawn from mining 60 years ago by executive order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. For more than a dozen years, Rio Tinto has tried to move the land swap through Congress to get around the ban on mining; it failed every time, until Sen. McCain pushed through his back-door rider. The late senator had been one of the largest recipients of Rio Tinto campaign contributions in all of Congress.

The mine would use a special new technique to excavate the ore body 7,000 feet underground. Material removed from the mine would cover thousands of acres of public land with toxic mine waste, and when the mine was eventually closed it would leave behind a crater up to two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. Oak Flat would be utterly destroyed and remain unsafe for human visitation in perpetuity.

Rio Tinto has recently been in the news for destroying a sacred site in Australia, the Juukan Gorge. In response to shareholder pressure the CEO resigned, and the company issued a statement to say, “never again.”

In January 2021 the Apache Stronghold filed a historic lien on the land, per the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe that had granted Apaches a parcel of land that included Oak Flat. This and the lawsuits from the Stronghold, Tribe and allies have slowed the land exchange. While the cases are being heard, the U.S. Forest Service has committed to no land exchange for 55 days. During this time we will continue to put pressure on all responsible to save Oak Flat from Resolution Copper.

OUR CAMPAIGN

As a leading member of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, and strong allies of the Apache Stronghold, the Center has fought for years to protect Oak Flat. In 2015 we helped organize a nationwide media campaign to publicize the Apache resistance that erupted in response to the McCain rider; in February 2015 the San Carlos Apache led a 45-mile march from their reservation to Oak Flat, where they launched a continuous occupation of resistance that continues to this day; the march has also become an annual event — in which many people even run for long stretches.

The Center also promoted two bills, introduced in the former Congress, that would have repealed the Oak Flat land exchange. (These were Senate Bill 2242, introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.], and House Bill 2811, introduced by Rep. Raúl Grijalva [D-Ariz.].)

We stand in support of the Apaches as they fight for their sacred land — and for all of the species that call Oak Flat home.

Oak Flat photo by Russ McSpadden/Center for Biological Diversity