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Federal appeals court allows Oak Flat land exchange to move forward

The Oak Flat campground on the Tonto National Forest
Ryan Heinsius/KNAU
Oak Flat on the Tonto National Forest is the site of a 2,500-acre federal land swap approved in 2014 that would pave the way for the one of the nation's largest copper mines.

A federal appeals court has ruled that a land exchange paving the way for one of the nation’s largest copper mines can move forward. Oak Flat in central Arizona is a sacred site to the San Carlos Apache Tribe, who’ve opposed the project for years.

In a recent decision the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals denied a preliminary injunction to stop the exchange of nearly 2,500 acres of Tonto National Forest near the town of Superior. It’s where the company Rio Tinto plans its Resolution Copper mine. In a 2-to-1 decision, the court ruled the project doesn’t rise to the level of a substantial burden on the tribe’s exercise of religion.

Oak Flat is the site of Apache ceremonies and where tribal members gather medicinal plants and visit sacred springs. It’s also included on the National Register of Historic Places. The mine would create a massive crater which tribal members say would permanently prevent them from conducting their spiritual practices.

The group Apache Stronghold sought the injunction while their separate court case against the federal government is decided. They say the exchange violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment as well as an 1852 treaty. A lawyer for the group says the decision is devastating and threatens people of all faiths.

In a statement the company says the project has been developed in consultation with tribes and they’ll continue to address and mitigate concerns.

Ryan Heinsius joined the KNAU newsroom as executive producer in 2013 and was named news director and managing editor in 2024. As a reporter, he has covered 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 Public Media Journalists Association Award winner, and a frequent contributor to NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and national newscast.