Apache group seeks quick relief on request to halt land swap


FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – A group of Apaches asked a federal court Thursday to keep the U.S. Forest Service from issuing an environmental review of a copper mining project at least until the court takes up a larger case over who legally owns land known as Oak Flat.

The move is the latest attempt by Apache Stronghold to keep land it considers sacred in eastern Arizona from being turned over to international mining giant Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Resolution Copper.

“We hang on to faith all the time. But how many times has the right thing been done?” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache chairman who leads the Apache Stronghold group. “Tomorrow (Friday) is a real critical day for us.”

The Tonto National Forest plans to publish a final environmental impact statement Friday for the project east of Phoenix that would be one of the largest copper mines in the U.S. Once the review is out, the Forest Service has 60 days to transfer the title to a parcel of land known as Oak Flat to the copper company. In exchange, the forest will get several parcels around Arizona.

The Forest Service hasn’t responded to request for comment on the lawsuit or the request for a temporary restraining order.

The land swap was made possible by a last-minute provision that the late Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain added to a must-pass defense bill in December 2014.

Supporters of the project have hailed the jobs and the economic prospects of resuming mining at the site, which wouldn’t happen immediately. Resolution Copper said it still has five years of study, followed by 10 years of construction before any mining would occur.

Apache Stronghold sued the Forest Service earlier this week. The lawsuit says the agency doesn’t have the legal right to transfer the land at Oak Flat to the mining company because it belongs to Apaches under an 1852 treaty.

Separately, the group filed notice Thursday in Pinal County that ownership of the Forest Service parcel is in dispute and the subject of a court case.

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