(RNS) — The United States Forest Service has withdrawn a final environmental impact statement that would allow Arizona land considered sacred by the Apache and other Native Americans to be transferred to a mining company in the next few weeks.
The move temporarily halts the transfer of Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, known widely as Oak Flat, to Australian mining company Resolution Copper, according to the Forest Service.
“Today we did get some good news. We have a small win,” Vanessa Nosie of Apache Stronghold, a group opposing the transfer, said Monday (March 1) on a livestream by the Poor People’s Campaign, a faith-led anti-poverty initiative.
“The Forest Service pulled, rescinded their final environmental impact statement, and that does buy us time, but that does not save Oak Flat. We need a congressional decision made. We need an act of Congress to protect our religion and to protect our way of life and to protect those future generations and to protect all people, because when there is a genocide of an Indigenous religion, that’s a genocide on the environment. You can’t separate the two,” Nosie said.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture directed the withdrawal after concluding it needed more time to fully understand concerns raised by the Apache and other federally recognized tribes, according to a statement about the land exchange posted on the USDA website hours earlier on Monday.
The department cited the Memorandum on Tribal Consultation and Strengthening Nation-to-Nation Relationships that President Joe Biden signed in January.
“My Administration is committed to honoring Tribal sovereignty and including Tribal voices in policy deliberation that affects Tribal communities,” the memorandum said. “The Federal Government has much to learn from Tribal Nations and strong communication is fundamental to a constructive relationship,” Biden wrote.
The USDA had published the final environmental impact statement on Jan. 15, starting a 60-day countdown to the transfer.
“In the time since these documents were released, the Agency and Department have received significant input from collaborators, partners, and the public through a variety of means,” the statement reads.
The move will allow the USDA to conduct a thorough review based on that input, it said.
But attorney Luke W. Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is representing Apache Stronghold, said, “The government issuing a non-binding statement that ‘We won’t do the transfers’ isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”
Becket filed an emergency motion last week in the U.S. District Court of Arizona to stop the transfer to Resolution Copper, claiming the destruction of Oak Flat would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
Wendsler Nosie Sr., who founded Apache Stronghold, said on the group’s website that the transfer amounts to “war on our religion.” Some Christian leaders have spoken out in support of Nosie’s efforts, including the Rev. William Barber II of the Poor People’s Campaign.
Oak Flat is a 6.7-square-mile stretch of land east of Phoenix that falls within Tonto National Forest. The Apache people hold a number of important ceremonies that can take place only on that site, which would be destroyed by mining, according to the motion.
“It’s not difficult to imagine an argument that the transfer could still happen,” even though the impact statement has been withdrawn, according to Goodrich.
It wouldn’t be the first time the U.S. government broke a promise not to take Native American land, “particularly when there’s a multi-billion dollar company on the other side that may have every interest to argue that the transfer has to take place,” Goodrich added.
Meanwhile, the government is expected to respond to Apache Stronghold’s motion by Monday evening, according to Goodrich.
And Resolution Copper is evaluating the Forest Service’s decision, spokesman Dan Blondeau told Religion News Service in an email.
“In the meantime, we will continue to engage in the process determined by the US government and are committed to ongoing consultation with Native American Tribes and local communities,” Blondeau said.
Longterm protection of the site likely will require an act of Congress, according to the USDA.