Apache Stronghold returns to 9th Circuit to argue against Oak Flat copper mine on sacred land

Published: Monday, March 20, 2023 - 4:23pm
Updated: Wednesday, March 22, 2023 - 9:25am
Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday in a case over a land transfer in the Tonto National Forest that would bring a massive copper mine to a sacred indigenous site about an hour east of Phoenix.

The forest land would be given to Rio Tinto, for the controversial Resolution Copper mining project.

The case pits Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit coalition of San Carlos Apache members and other groups, against the federal government. Arguments focused on religious freedoms and use of government land. Luke Goodrich represents Apache Stronghold.

“If the government controls a necessary religious resource – it controls access to a necessary religious resource, and it completely bars access or destroys the resource, that counts as a substantial burden,” Goodrich told the court.

One area of particular concern in the forest is Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, or Oak Flat in English, because it is sacred to the Apache people.

“The Apaches have a right to go onto Oak Flat, to access it and use it for their religious purposes,” Goodrich said. “They’ve enjoyed that right by long custom. It is protected by executive order and statute.”

Those in favor of the land transfer argued that the idea of “substantial burden” doesn’t apply here because Oak Flat is on government land. And it's the government's right to use that land to further its own interests.