The Fight for Oak Flat Isn't Over Yet

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Access Fund’s ongoing fight to save Oak Flat in Arizona from being destroyed by mining. Located only 50 miles from Phoenix, Oak Flat offers exceptional bouldering and climbing opportunities on well-featured volcanic tuff. The area is also sacred to several of Arizona’s Native American tribes, and it supports a healthy desert ecosystem.

Climbing advocates protest mining operations at Oak Flat, ancestral lands of Akimel O’odham (Upper Pima) and Hohokam. Photo courtesy of © Michael Schennum

A large copper deposit sits underneath this exceptional landscape, and a foreign-owed mining company, Resolution Copper Mining (RCM), has been attempting to gain ownership of this parcel of Forest Service land since 2005 for a block caving operation. This type of mining operation will cause the copper deposit itself and all of the ground above it to collapse over time, as the ore is extracted from below. By RCM’s own estimate, the resulting surface crater from this mining operation would be over a mile wide and 1,000 feet deep—consuming Oak Flat and all of the sacred sites and fantastic recreational resources within it. If this mine moves forward, it would be the largest loss of climbing resources ever on America’s public lands.

For 10 years in a row, RCM lobbyists succeeded in convincing pro-mining legislators to introduce land-exchange legislation into Congress that would give them outright ownership of Oak Flat.

Access Fund worked for a decade alongside Native American tribes, environmental groups, and local climbing organizations to carry out broad, coordinated advocacy campaigns—including letter-writing campaigns, in-person testimony, meetings with congressional staff, meetings with land management agencies, and written comments—to shut this legislation down and protect Oak Flat.

The coordinated opposition to this mining operation has been exceptionally strong, and Access Fund worked hand-in-hand with the San Carlos Apache, Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, National Congress of American Indians, the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Earthworks, and Arizona Mining Reform Coalition.

Photo courtesy of Manny Rangel

The result of this coordinated opposition was that none of the 12 land-exchange bills introduced into Congress to convey ownership of Oak Flat to RCM ever became law.

Frustrated by their inability to pass this legislation on its own merits, sponsors of the RCM land-exchange legislation succeeded in getting the bill attached as an unrelated rider to the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA is considered a piece of “must pass” legislation each year, because it authorizes appropriations for Department of Defense military purposes. The process of attaching the RCM land-exchange bill to the NDAA involved back-room, closed-door negotiations between powerful members of Congress and was devoid of any public input, comment, or scrutiny. When Congress passed the NDAA in late December 2014, then-President Obama had no option but to sign it into law—despite his administration’s well-known objection to this land exchange.

But the fight isn’t over yet. The Forest Service is legally required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the mining operation, as mandated by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) before the public land at Oak Flat can be conveyed to RCM. Access Fund, tribes, local citizens, and environmental groups have voiced strong opposition to the Draft EIS, which does not adequately analyze the potential impacts to air, water, cultural resources, neighboring communities, and the local recreation economy. The Forest Service is currently evaluating our feedback and has indicated that the final EIS will not be published before December 2020, but could be considerably later.

At the same time, Access Fund has put its support behind the Save Oak Flat Act (SOFA), a bill introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Raul Grijalva and in the Senate by Sen. Bernie Sanders. This bill would repeal Section 3003 of the FY2015 NDAA, thereby undoing the land exchange altogether. While there is little chance that the SOFA could pass through the current Congress, the upcoming general election on November 3 offers new hope for Oak Flat.