Access Fund Sues After Trump Initiates Transfer of Oak Flat in Final Days

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Climbing at Oak Flat, ancestral lands of Apache, Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima) and Hohokam.

Climbing at Oak Flat, ancestral lands of Apache, Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima) and Hohokam.

In the final days before leaving office, the Trump Administration initiated the transfer of 2,422 acres of Oak Flat in Arizona, an Apache ancestral territory and world-class rock climbing destination, to foreign-owned Resolution Copper (RC). Access Fund filed a lawsuit today in Arizona federal district court, seeking to prevent the destruction of the sacred site and the largest-ever loss of climbing on America’s public lands.

Access Fund is joined in this lawsuit by the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, and the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.

Previously, the San Carlos Apache Tribe and Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit organization that protects the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s holy sites, filed separate lawsuits to protect Chi’chil Bildagoteel (Oak Flat).

If the proposed mine is allowed to move forward, it will, by RC’s own estimate, result in a surface crater approximately two miles wide and 1,000 feet deep—consuming Oak Flat and all of the sacred sites and recreational resources within it, including hundreds of climbing routes and thousands of boulder problems.

“Oak Flat is a sacred place to our friends in the Native American community, and climbers have enjoyed this beautiful landscape for generations,” said Chris Winter, executive director of Access Fund. “We could lose it all if Oak Flat is traded away to a foreign mining company. For everyone who cares about this special place, we have to stand up to keep public land in public hands.”

Rio Tinto, RC’s parent company, was recently criticized for destroying a 46,000-year-old Aboriginal site in Western Australia to gain access to iron ore. The company’s chief executives stepped down, clouded in scandal, and the company’s chairman vowed never to demolish important cultural sites again—yet they are poised to do just that at Oak Flat.

A 15 Year Battle

Access Fund has been fighting for more than 15 years, alongside tribes and environmental groups, to prevent RC from obtaining ownership of this parcel of U.S. Forest Service (USFS) land to access a large copper ore deposit. Congress approved the land transfer in 2014 in a secretive deal between powerful members of Congress—which was devoid of any public input, comment, or scrutiny—getting the unrelated land transfer bill attached to the “must-pass” National Defense Authorization Act that funds the military. However, before the land could be transferred to the mining company, the USFS was legally required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the mining operation, as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) mandates.

Climbing advocates protest mining operations at Oak Flat, ancestral lands of Apache, Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima) and Hohokam.

Climbing advocates protest mining operations at Oak Flat, ancestral lands of Apache, Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima) and Hohokam.

Access Fund, local tribes, and many environmental groups participated in the USFS’s EIS process and voiced strong opposition to the Draft EIS, which did not adequately analyze the potential impacts to air, water, cultural resources, neighboring communities, and the local recreation economy.

A Flawed Environmental Review

The USFS fast-tracked the EIS process, releasing the final EIS and Draft Record of Decision last Friday, January 15, a year earlier than planned. It fails to inventory irreplaceable cultural resources and lacks the necessary record of decision to certify its completion and accordance with law. Yet the Trump Administration nonetheless rushed through this environmental review in the waning days of the administration.

Access Fund and its co-plaintiffs are asking that the court set aside the final EIS because it is inadequate. If successful, this lawsuit would prevent the land transfer until the new administration conducts an adequate and careful environmental review. Sign up for Access Fund’s quarterly Policy Digest email below to stay up to date.Get the Latest News About Public LandsSign up for our quarterly Policy Digest email to get the latest news about climbing on public lands.