Here’s an Earth Day project: Save Sacred Apache Lands

Americans will celebrate the 52nd Earth Day Friday by committing to clean up land and oceans, as well as renewing action to stem climate change. Along the way, we should also unite to stop a government-backed project that, if allowed to proceed, will leave a permanent scar on the American landscape while grossly abusing one of the human rights the most fundamental: the free exercise of religion.

In Arizona’s Tonto National Forest is a vast swath of land that has been held sacred to the religion of the Apache people for centuries. It is known to most Americans as the Oak Flat. It is known to the Apaches as Chich’il Bildagoteel, their Temple Mount or Vatican Hill equivalent. The centuries-old religious significance of this site has been recognized by the US government since the 19th century treaty negotiations with the Apaches.

The more than 2,400 acres of Oak Flat offer a multitude of environmental and cultural riches. Oak Flat is home to ocelots, stately oak trees and the colorful blooms of hedgehog cacti. It is a dining spot for urban hikers and campers. For Apache people, it is a sacred site for harvesting medicinal plants, holding coming-of-age ceremonies and praying to the Creator.

Under current law, Oak Flat is at risk of being mutilated beyond recognition and possibility of restoration. In 2014, the site was targeted in a midnight endorsement for an unavoidable defense funding bill. Because of this covenant, under current law, Oak Flat must be part of a land swap with a foreign mining company, Rio Tinto, which plans to mine copper at the site.

In most cases, extractive industries can thrive alongside other uses. This is not one of those cases. When the mine is dug, Rio Tinto will erase Oak Flat, leaving behind a crater as long as the National Mall and as deep as two Washington monuments.

Arizona residents are tallying up the environmental cost of this deal in terms of lost habitat, destroyed ecosystems, abandoned recreation and the huge amounts of water the mine will consume in a state already ravaged by decades of drought. .

Imagine doing this to any other religious community or group – pulverizing St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York or the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island – and not only destroying an irreplaceable place of worship, but leaving behind an ugly, huge gash. In the ground .

The good news is that Apaches, long marginalized and politically powerless, are well represented by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee. His bill, the Save Oak Flat Act, was co-sponsored by 100 members of Congress, including one of the few registered Native Americans in Congress, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). Conservation, Indigenous and religious groups have urged Congress to pass the bill.

Opponents of the bill will argue that stopping this project would kill good American jobs. Karla Schumann, secretary-treasurer of the Arizona-based Teamsters Local 104, who has every reason to want to support good union jobs in her state, wrote that “this mine will be fully automated and will not create good jobs for the Arizonans”.

Opponents of the Save Oak Flat Act also say that with the nation’s critical reliance on digital technology and electric vehicles, access to new sources of copper is a strategic necessity. In fact, the US Geological Survey reports that approximately 60% of US copper comes from recycled scrap, which is likely why the federal government excluded copper from its recently revised list of strategic minerals. The Arizona Department of Transportation reports that most of the copper from this mine would be exported. The most likely destination is China.

Does it make sense to allow the total desecration of a living religion of our fellow Americans and the culture it supports? Is there anything to be gained by destroying valuable wilderness, all to help a foreign mining company ship copper overseas?

As my former colleagues gaze across the vast expanse of the National Mall, I urge them to remember the founders’ promise of the free exercise of religion. Then imagine it being taken away from us and replaced by a crater that runs from the steps of the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial.

Rick Boucher, Senior Policy Advisor Protect The 1strepresented Virginia’s 9th congressional district from 1983 to 2011.

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