Last Thursday, the House of Representatives at the last minute unexpectedly scrapped a scheduled floor vote on HR 687, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act. This bill privatizes protected public lands, enjoyed by campers, hikers, and climbers, sacred to the Apache people and turns them over to foreign mining corporations.
This is the 12th time Congress has considered this bill. Each time a new version appears, the opposition grows. Native American tribes, local communities, and environmental groups have demonstrated near universal opposition. The fastest growing source of opposition comes from Republican members of the House whose districts serve Native American communities. Many conservative Democrats too have expressed strong reservations.
Protecting Sacred Sites
This land exchange includes a sacred site called Apache Leap. According to legend, while fleeing General Custer’s cavalry, scores of Apache warriors found themselves surrounded on a cliff overlooking what is now the town of Superior, Arizona. Rather than face capture, the warriors chose to leap to their deaths. The obsidian rock along the face of the cliff represents the tears of the their widows.
Picking Winners and Losers
During floor debate both proponents and opponents offered views on whether the community would benefit from this mining project. Resolution Copper, a joint effort of international mining giants Rio Tinto and BHP-Billiton, have their numbers. Critics cite the typical boom and bust economic cycles suffered by communities whose fortunes link too closely with resource extraction. Taxpayer advocates also expressed concerns that privatizing copper-rich public lands might deprive the American Treasury of needed royalty revenues from the people’s minerals.
But just in case bill sponsors believed the mining industry’s promises of jobs and economic growth, Congressman Grijalva offered an amendment that would keep one of the mine’s operations centers in Arizona. The amendment failed just before the House Majority abruptly scrapped votes on amendments by Reps. Lujan and Napolitano to ensure that the exchange process respected sacred sites and accounted for water usage.
Closing the Barn Door After the Horses Escape
In addition to respecting sacred Native American sites, the fortunes of this bill also appear tied to respect for the environment. Whenever the Federal Government chooses to conduct any activity of this magnitude, it needs to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). NEPA simply requires consideration of the potential environmental impacts of the copper mine as well as proper evaluation of alternatives. This cannot occur if the land belongs to a private company. HR 687 still requires the NEPA analysis, but only after the Government privatizes the land. By then, it’s too late.
It’s a little awkward that the House Majority brought this bill to the floor only to suddenly pull it from consideration. Some speculate they simply didn’t have the votes. Normally, floor managers know where their members stand- especially on a bill that has repeatedly passed this chamber before. The decision to bring this bill up for a vote in the first place demonstrates how much they underestimated the San Carlos Apache. Americans have enormous respect for sacred sites. We expect a fair return for the public’s minerals. We demand proper consultation and compliance with our bedrock environmental laws. Destroying protected public lands, providing sham environmental review, and giving a windfall to foreign mining corporations insults our values. Let us hope the speculation is correct- most members of the House do not support HR 687 either.