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A site on Apache Mountain, where Apache warriors plunged to their deaths to avoid the U.S. cavalry, may soon overlook a copper mine.

A site on Apache Mountain, where Apache warriors plunged to their deaths to avoid the U.S. cavalry, may soon overlook a copper mine.

Brent Bristol/Flickr

Planned Arizona copper mine would put a hole in Apache archaeology

Archaeologists and Native American tribes are protesting language in a Senate bill that would approve a controversial land exchange between the federal government and a copper mining company—a swap that may put Native American archaeological sites at risk. The bill is needed to fund the U.S. military and is considered likely to pass the Senate as early as today.

The company Resolution Copper Mining hopes to exploit rich copper deposits beneath 980 hectares of Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The land, however, also contains important archaeological sites and places sacred to local Native American tribes, especially the Apache. “This is the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented, period, full stop,” says John Welch, a former historic preservation officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribe and a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada.

Archaeologists fear that the standard process for approval of a land exchange is being sidestepped. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) lays out a process to determine a land transferal’s potential impact on the environment, archaeological and historic sites, and places sacred to Native Americans. The language inserted into the defense spending bill states that the land will be transferred to Resolution Copper 60 days after an environmental impact statement, part of the NEPA process, has been completed. That prejudges the outcome of the evaluation, says Jeffrey Altschul, president of the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) in Washington, D.C. “The bill says that Congress has already decided that the land swap will take place,” he says, “so we’ll do the land swap and then we’ll do NEPA.

Resolution Copper has pointed out that there will be an environmental review in any case. In a statement published in 2013, the company says that the NEPA review will take place “[u]nder any circumstances,” including if work on the exchange begins at the same time. 

The swap has been controversial for years. Between 2005 and 2011, bills proposing it died in committee five times in the House of Representatives and six times in the Senate, says David Lindsay, SAA’s government affairs manager, who tracks legislation for the organization. Those bills faced determined opposition from Native American tribes. Attaching the land exchange rider to the defense spending bill is a way to circumvent that opposition, says Michael Nixon, an environmental lawyer who works with the Maricopa Audubon Society and has fought the land exchange since the beginning. “Stuffing riders into... bills that are not germane to the subject is undemocratic,” he says. 

What is at stake is a landscape that has remained essentially unchanged, except for a few modern roads, since the Hohokam people lived there more than 500 years ago, says J. Scott Wood, an archaeologist for the Tonto National Forest. The area was once a trade center where the Hohokam exchanged goods from as far away as the Pacific Coast. It also preserves a full range of Apache archaeological sites, which are rare. Little is known about Apache history prior to contact with Europeans.

The most important historic site is called the Apache Leap, where a group of Apache who were being pursued by U.S. cavalry plunged off a cliff to their deaths rather than be captured. The land exchange rider exempts Apache Leap from becoming part of the copper mine, but it’s right next door, says Vernelda Grant, who is the tribal historic preservation officer for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. She says that having a working copper mine next to the site will change how people experience it. The same holds true for other culturally sensitive sites nearby, such as a place called Devil’s Canyon “where the spiritual beings that represent healing live,” Grant says. “We have songs and ceremonies that are sung there—it’s a place to just pray and pray for healing.”

The Senate is expected to pass the defense spending bill as early as today; the House has already passed it. Next, it will go to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature, and archaeologists don’t think there is much chance of changing or removing the rider. “They should be going through the standard process that everybody else uses to get a mine going,” says Simon Fraser University’s Welch. “It’s really suspicious to be coming up with new laws every time somebody wants to put in a mine.”