Oak Flat

This pond forms every rainy season just west of Oak Flat, a site that, for the moment, is protected from mining.

The following column is the opinion and analysis of the writer.

Growing up in New York, I never knew the places that are sacred to my culture. There was no coming-of-age ceremony. I didn’t get the chance to learn from the Navajo side of my family.

So when I visited Oak Flat for the first time a few years ago, it was a revelation. Oak Flat gave me back something I’d lost — a sense of place and connection.

This stunning piece of high desert in the Tonto National Forest is sacred land to Western Apache tribes. Oak Flat is an Apache church, and I’ve been told my ancestors may have passed through this land. It feels like a holy place because it is.

But Oak Flat is under tremendous threat.

A multinational mining company wants to build the largest underground copper mine in the world on this public land. The Resolution Copper mine would completely destroy Oak Flat and leave a crater more than 2 miles wide and 1,000 feet deep, obliterating sacred sites as if a bomb had been dropped.

To operate the mine, the company would suck up precious groundwater, draining the regional aquifer and possibly drying up nearby Ga’an Canyon, another sacred site that’s also critically important to the region’s wildlife.

How much water would the mine use? We don’t know, because Resolution Copper’s estimates haven’t been independently verified. The U.S. Forest Service is taking this giant mining company at its word, despite the fact that it’s made grave errors and false assumptions in the past.

Toxic mine tailings would be stored nearby, but neither the company nor the Forest Service is saying where.

It’s not clear if dumping piles of toxic waste on our public lands is even legal. These types of tailings have been banned in other countries, where they’ve caused catastrophic destruction and loss of life.

All of this is bad enough, but the mining deal itself is a travesty, a slap in the face to the Apaches who hold these lands sacred and another example of the injustice indigenous people have faced for hundreds of years.

The proposed land swap that will make this copper mine possible was brought to you by your own Arizona elected officials who snuck it into a must-pass bill in a backroom deal in 2015. The message was clear and heartbreaking: Native lands with religious significance could be sacrificed for the profits of huge corporations.

In August the Forest Service released a required draft environmental analysis. The 1,300-page document failed to adequately assess the value of the roughly 2,400 acres to be traded away or consider the potential damage to important nearby lands, such as historic Apache Leap. The analysis also ignored the fact that Oak Flat is sacred to Apache tribes.

Just two hours north of Tucson and an hour east of Phoenix, visiting Oak Flat is like stepping into another world.

Its huge oak trees, canyons and streams provide habitat for imperiled species including the Arizona hedgehog cactus, yellow-billed cuckoos and narrow-headed garter snakes.

Thanks to its beautiful rock formations, it’s world renowned for rock climbing. And it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Oak Flat’s significance to the Apache people cannot be replaced by a land swap. Unlike me, today’s Apache youth are growing up knowing their sacred places. If Oak Flat is destroyed, that connection is lost forever.

The Tonto National Forest is taking comments from the public on the mine’s environmental impact statement. Thursday is the deadline to submit comments, at www.resolutionmineeis.us/comments.

Now is the time to raise your voice to protect indigenous rights, sacred sites and public lands.

Brytnee Miller lives in Tucson and works as a campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity.