Lawmakers Accuse Feds Of ‘Stealth Land Grab’ To Stop An Arizona Mining Project

by Michael Bastasch

The National Parks Service (NPS) may be trying to stop an Arizona mining project by quickly and quietly creating a historical district on federal lands that would make such projects much harder to get approved.

Federal lawmakers have sent letters to NPS demanding answers and have expressed worry the agency’s move is yet another attempt at a “stealth land grab” by federal official.

“It appears that the Obama Administration is attempting to silence public comments and once again pander to extremist mining opponents seeking to undermine a bipartisan jobs bill that is estimated to create approximately 3,700 new jobs and generate $60 billion dollars for our economy,” Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar told The Daily Caller News Foundation.

Gosar and Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, an Arizona Democrat, have sent two letters to the NPS, asking the agency why it’s again proposing to designate an area called Oak Flat a historical district. This is the second time NPS has quietly tried to make the area a historical site, and, should they succeed, companies like Rio Tinto and BHP Hilton would find it much more difficult to build the Resolution Copper mine in the area.

In January 2016, without any sort of heads up, NPS proposed creating the “Chi’chil Bildagoteel Historic District.” NPS is using its little-known Apache name and only giving the public 11 days to comment on the proposal, which has virtually no details about the lands being affected — it’s just one line in the Federal Register.

Gosar and Kirkpatrick are worried the lack of details in NPS’ proposal could make life harder for property owners in the region. NPS doesn’t include any details on what land could be made into a historical district, which means ranchers, construction companies and even local governments that depend on access to Oak Flat are left in the dark about how their livelihoods will be affected by the listing. To them, it’s not just about a mining project.

“Given the lack of detail in the filing, it is virtually impossible for our constituents who may be affected to participate in the public comment process,” Gosar told TheDCNF.

“No maps were published with the January 21 notice, a formal address for the site is ‘restricted,’ the February 5, 2016 deadline for public comments provides a mere 11 days for public comment and the phrase ‘Chi’chil Bildagoteel Historic District’ is not well-known to my constituents,” Gosar said.

Chi’chil Bildagoteel is a recently used Apache name for the Oak Flat campground where Rio Tino and BHP Hilton want to mine for copper. Chi’chil Bildagoteel does not appear on any maps maintained by the National Geologic Serviceor maps of the Tonto National Forest. Lawmakers argued the name seemed to be made up by federal officials to hide the fact they want to derail the mining deal.

“The Park Service chose to ignore this request and utilized a name not well-known to constituents and provided extremely limited geographic information,” Gosar said, referencing requests by Kirkpatrick and himself to be notified of any potential listing of Oak flat.

After a lengthy environmental review is completed, Rio Tinto will give the federal government 5,000 acres of land to be set aside for conservation in exchange for 2,400 acres for potential mining. That land, would become Rio Tinto’s private property — though the company has promised to still allow the public to use its land for recreational activities.

“When more land is locked up by the federal government, real people suffer and opportunities for future prosperity are reduced,” Gosar said. “For every acre of land declared public, there is an acre of private land lost and in Arizona; only about 18% of the land remaining in the state is privately held.”

The land-swap deal, signed into law by President Barack Obama in 2014, has been opposed by some Native Americans, environmentalists and Democratic lawmakers who argue this is sacred tribal land.

Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s now running for president, introduced legislation to derail the land-swap deal that would give Rio Tinto mining lands.

House Democrats even broke congressional rules to hold a hearing against the Resolution Copper mine, bringing in critical tribal leaders and environmentalists to rail against the project.

Last June, NPS listed an area known as Oak Flat to be treated as a historical district, which would add more hurdles to any sort of development on the land. Some Native Americans and environmentalists have argued the land is a sacred site and should be off-limits to mining.

“For conservation organizations, Chi’chil Bildagoteel is critical for the protection of the rare desert riparian habitat is contains,” a coalition of environmental groups led by Earthworks wrote to NPS in June 2015.

“The intact nature of the Chi’chil Bildagoteel ecosystem is one of the reasons that Chi’chil Bildagoteel is such an important traditional cultural area,” environmentalists argued.

NPS proposed creating the “Chi’chil Bildagoteel Historic District” in Kearney, Arizona last June, but Gosar and Kirkpatrick quickly rebuffed the proposal, noting the name used by NPS does not appear on any maps.

The listing also had the wrong location — it’s Kearny, not Kearney. Lawmakers noted that Kearny was also 20 miles from Oak Flat, and called the listing misleading since it also lacked detail. NPS withdrew its proposal last year due to “inaccuracies.”

What’s more interesting, is that it’s not even clear Oak Flat is actually a Native American sacred site.

Dale Miles, the former tribal historian of the San Carlos Tribe, debunked such claims in an op-ed last July. Miles argued there “has not been a long history of ceremonial or cultural activities such as Sunrise or Holy Ground ceremonies taking place at Oak Flat.”

Miles added “the thought of having such a ceremony at Oak Flat, far from the support of relatives, clan members and friends in the San Carlos tribal area is almost unthinkable.”

NPS did not respond to TheDCNF’s requests for comment.

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