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Federal Land Swap Planned To Begin As Tribal Group Mounts Legal Battle

Ryan Heinsius

The U.S. Forest Service plans to begin a controversial land swap Friday that’ll pave the way for a copper mine in central Arizona that'll be one of the largest in the nation. A tribal group, however, has filed a series of legal actions to block the move. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.

The group Apache Stronghold filed a federal lawsuit against the Forest Service this week along with a lien and restraining order. It’s all aimed at preventing the agency from releasing the final environmental impact statement for the mine, which would begin the process of transferring ownership of Oak Flat to the company Rio Tinto.

Apache Stronghold argues the federal government is violating the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s rights to religious freedom and due process.

"The bottom line is, this is a sacred place. You can’t tamper with a sacred place," says Wendsler Nosie, a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and leader of the group. "If this goes through then all these sacred places that means so much to all of us will be gone."

Oak Flat has been the site of coming-of-age and other ceremonies and cultural practices for centuries.

A spokesperson for the Forest Service says the agency doesn’t comment on pending or ongoing litigation.

A Rio Tinto spokesperson says the company is reviewing the filings from Apache Stronghold and remains "committed to ongoing engagement with Native American Tribes to continue shaping the project and deliver initiatives that recognize and protect cultural heritage.”

Ryan joined KNAU's newsroom in 2013. He covers a broad range of stories from local, state and tribal politics to education, economy, energy and public lands issues, and frequently interviews internationally known and regional musicians. Ryan is an Edward R. Murrow Award winner and a frequent contributor to NPR.
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