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One of the country's largest copper deposits lies an hour and a half east of Phoenix, but none of the copper in the Oak Flat area has been mined - yet. That may change, thanks to a controversial land swap between the federal government and a private company, but as Carrie Jung of member station KJZZ reports, efforts to mine the copper are being opposed by some Native American residents.
CARRIE JUNG, BYLINE: A holy place - that's how many members of the San Carlos Apache tribe describe the Oak Flat area. Tribal Chairman Terry Rambler compares it to a church.
TERRY RAMBLER: Ours is not a more formal structure that where we go pray, but we pray within the environment. Our connection is to our creator, God, with what he provided to us.
JUNG: The roughly 760-acre cliff-lined, copper-rich valley has been controlled by the federal government for decades. Today several dozen people are occupying this land, sleeping in tents. The protesters have been here since February, after a 40-mile march from the San Carlos Apache reservation to the campground.
WENDSLER NOSIE: As we make our journey from here to there, all these spirits are with us - the land, the animals, the water, the sun the clouds - because we're respectful.
JUNG: Protest leader Wendsler Nosie says he plans to stay here if necessary for several years. The land swap that prompted this dispute obligates the U.S. Forest Service to give about 2,400 acres of its land to Resolution Copper in exchange for around 5,000 acres of the company's land. Resolution Copper plans to open a mine there. The deal has been in the works for about a decade, but was only approved by Congress last year after Senator John McCain added it to the National Defense spending bill.
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SEN JOHN MCCAIN: I am so proud that 25 percent of our nation's copper supply is going to come from that mine. In one of the most economically-depressed parts of Arizona, we're going to provide a better life for literally thousands of citizens in my state.
JUNG: Scott Wood, a retired Forest Service archeologist, says the Oak Flat area contains significant evidence of Apache history. Wood is concerned the method the company has chosen to mine the copper, known as block cave mining, would cause the land to cave-in on itself, leaving a crater spanning two miles across and up to 1,000 feet deep. And when it comes to those Apache archaeological sites...
SCOTT WOOD: The ultimate impact is that those sites will be gone, literally gone.
JUNG: Officials with Resolution Copper say the block cave method is the best approach right now. In the nearby town of Superior, resident Bill Vogler with the Superior Copper Alliance says many people welcome the mine.
BILL VOGLER: If you could sustain the life in the town and everything was copacetic and we didn't need the copper, that'd be all fine and dandy. But it's going to happen.
JUNG: Resolution Copper says the mine will create about 1,400 mining jobs and generate billions of dollars in revenue. Company tribal liaison Tara Kitcheyan says the economic activity would benefit the people of the San Carlos Apache reservation, an area that already suffers from high levels of unemployment.
TARA KITCHEYAN: I have frequent conversations with tribal members of San Carlos, and they're tired of surviving. They want to begin to live.
JUNG: Kitcheyan is a member of the San Carlos Apache tribe and lives on the reservation. Kitcheyan argues, while people do go to Oak Flat to pray, she contends it doesn't fit the definition of sacred that she's been taught.
KITCHEYAN: In our teachings, we are taught that a scared place has a song and a name and a prayer to identify it within our Apache culture, and Oak Flat does not have that. Oak Flat does not have a song. It does not have a prayer. It does not have a story to it.
JUNG: Kitcheyan adds her colleagues at Resolution Copper have repeatedly asked to meet with tribal officials. San Carlos Apache leaders say they have no interest in meeting with anyone from the company. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Jung. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.