Sacred to Western Apache and other Indigenous people, the beautiful lands of Oak Flat, Arizona are also home to species like ocelots and endangered Arizona hedgehog cacti.
Sadly this place of beauty, healing and prayer is in danger. Multinational mining conglomerate Rio Tinto — with a long, proven record of ecological and cultural destruction in other parts of the world — intends to replace its rolling hills with a massive copper mine.
The Center and our allies are working to save it.
For many centuries Oak Flat has played a fundamental role in the culture of Western Apache tribes, including the San Carlos Apache. Countless generations 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.”
Located in central Arizona’s Tonto National Forest (near the town of Superior), 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 lives here, 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.
THE LAND SWAP
This stunning place first came under threat in late December 2014 when, 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. The swap would trade away Oak Flat to international mining behemoth Rio Tinto for its proposed Resolution Copper Mine, despite the fact that mining was prohibited in the area 60 years ago, by executive order of President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
The mine would use a special new technique to excavate the ore body 7,000 feet underground. Material removed from the mine would spread toxic waste across thousands of acres of public land, and when ultimately closed, it would leave behind a crater up to two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep. Oak Flat would be utterly destroyed and unsafe for human visitation in perpetuity.
Rio Tinto has made headlines for destroying a sacred site in Australia, the Juukan Gorge. In response to shareholder pressure the CEO resigned, and the company issued a statement saying, “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 including Oak Flat. This and the lawsuits from the Stronghold, Tribe and allies have slowed the land exchange.
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. Also that year, 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 has also supported and promoted legislation to repeal the Oak Flat land exchange. The newest bill, the Save Oak Flat Act, has been introduced in the House (by Rep. Grijalva), and Sen. Sanders will soon introduce its companion bill in the Senate.
We stand in support of the Apache people as they fight for their holy land — and for all the other species that call Oak Flat home.