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Earlier this week Senators McCain and Flake, along with Representatives Gosar and Kirkpatrick, introduced the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2013 (HR 687). The bill’s purpose is to facilitate a copper mine in federally protected lands east of Superior, Arizona. This bill, similar to the version in the 112th Congress, has been debated for years. The sticking point boils down to whether international mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton should dig for copper destroying areas sacred to the Apache Tribe and enjoyed by campers, climbers, and other recreationalists.

A Sacred Site for Native Peoples, A Cherished Campsite for Hikers

In the 1870s, warriors from the Apache Nation faced off against Custer’s Cavalry on a mountain overlooking what is now Superior, Arizona. According to legend, during one battle, the Apache found themselves cornered on a large rocky ledge. Rather than surrender, some seventy-five Apache chose to leap to their deaths- lending the name to the sacred site Apache Leap. The tradition states that the obsidian rocks on the cliff side represent tears from the mourners left behind.

In addition to Apache Leap, the bill also targets the Oak Flat Campground. Enjoyed for decades by outdoor enthusiasts of all kinds, President Eisenhower set aside the land from mining in 1955. Situated about four miles from Superior and near Devil’s Canyon, Oak Flat provides year round recreational opportunities for tourists and residents alike. If this land exchange goes forward, it would create the largest give away of public recreational land in our nation’s history.

Is Anything Sacred?

And that’s the main point: keep public lands in public hands. HR 687 would wrest these precious lands from all of us and turn them over to international mining companies with some unscrupulous geopolitical ties. Rather than forever binding our economic growth to resource extraction, we should recognize the critical economic impact conservation provides. Jobs from mining are limited, volatile, and temporary. Jobs in the tourism and recreational industries are clean and last forever. Preservation has its own economic benefits one cannot outsource.

Besides, isn’t it enough we already give the mining companies everything they could want? Legal recognition as the best use of public lands. Royalty free minerals from public lands they acquire for virtually nothing. Exemptions from environmental laws that allow them to convert lakes and streams in to toxic mercury and cyanide-laden waste dumps.

During his Presidential campaigns, Sen. McCain famously named Teddy Roosevelt as one of his political heroes. On domestic policy, Teddy Roosevelt is perhaps best know for his conservation ethic as the first President to protect public lands from the persistent encroachment of civilization. We should recapture that ethic, recognizing that nature’s resources are not necessarily something we should subdue, but instead embrace.