PHOENIX — A land deal tacked on to a major defense spending bill passed by Congress Friday, along with insensitive comments made by a congressman involved in the deal, are causing some controversy in Arizona.
The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act passed as part of the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act and would hand over 2,400 acres of federally-protected land in the Tonto National Forest to a mining company in exchange for land elsewhere if President Barack Obama signs the legislation.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced the deal and said it will have a major economic benefit for Arizona, with estimates in the $61 billion range over the life of the mine.
“It’s an exchange that meets the environment requirements in our view and it’s expected to create about 3,700 mining and mining-related jobs,” he said.
In exchange for land at the Oak Flat Campground, mining company Resolution Copper would turn over parcels of land around the state to the federal government. The plots are in Santa Cruz, Yavapai, Gila and Pinal counties. An appraiser would calculate the value of the land in the Tonto National Forest and a roughly equal amount of value would be swapped, according to Carrie Templin, public affairs specialist with the Tonto National Forest.
Opponents of the deal have cited several reasons as to why it should not go through, given the land where Resolution Copper would mine is considered sacred ground by the San Carlos Indian Tribe.
Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.), who backed the deal in the House, said that despite studies into the matter, no evidence has been found to conclude that the Oak Flat Campground should be considered sacred and McCain added that the Apache Leap Cliff, which is known to have significance to local tribes, is not part of the deal and will remain protected.
The U.S. 60 that runs through the area would also remain untouched, McCain said.
Some are calling Gosar’s thinking into question after comments made in a recent meeting to discuss various land issues, including the Oak Flat Campground deal. He said Native Americans are “still wards of the federal government.” The comment drew plenty of criticism given the sensitive nature of the deal.
“He kind of revealed the truth — the true deep feeling of the federal government: ‘Tribes, you can call yourselves sovereign nations, but when it comes down to the final test, you’re not really sovereign because we still have plenary authority over you,'” Phil Stago of the White Mountain Apache Tribe told the Associated Press.
Other concerns include environmental effects and the loss of a popular recreational area for residents of Superior, Ariz., to which McCain said the mine created by Resolution Copper would have to meet the standards of the National Environmental Policy Act; a rare provision in typical land deals.
“Congressionally-directed land exchanges almost never require a (National Environmental Policy Act) review that can take years to complete,” McCain said. “So we will make sure not only that it’s environmentally correct now, but will have to be in the future as well.”
Residents and visitors to the Superior area have also expressed concerns over the loss of a the Oak Flat Campground, but Gosar said the role that copper plays in the state’s economy is far more significant than the attraction as a campground.
“There is a huge demand for copper, from cars to our infrastructure, to our transmission lines to new batteries,” he said. “We’re importing over 30 percent and this mine could actually bring 25 percent of that product right here.”
Elias Butler, a frequent visitor at the Oak Flat Campground, said he isn’t happy about its potential destruction and despite what supporters such as Gosar say, the land is significant for local Indian tribes.
“I’m generally opposed to the privatization of our public lands, but especially in this case where it’s actually protected lands,” he said.
Butler has opposed the deal since its early incarnation nearly 10 years ago. He feels that proponents and legislators are overstating the kind of economic benefit the mine would have.
“Back then, the estimation for the amount of jobs that would be created was in the hundreds and it’s grown exponentially every year since then, without any factual data to back (it) up,” he said.
Among other concerns, Butler said he was not convinced of the environmental quality control the government would be able to impose once the land is privatized, and tacking the deal onto an existing bill is an unfair way for representatives to legislate.
“It’s a move that circumvents the democratic process (and) it doesn’t allow the bill to be judged on its own merits,” he said. “It is an act of desperation that is a bit to get the bill passed without it being judged.”
Butler said a petition against the deal on the White House website had over 70,000 signatures.