Rejecting tribe’s religious freedom claims, court declines to block mine

By Hannah Northey | 03/04/2024 01:37 PM EST

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed an argument by members of the nonprofit Apache Stronghold that the construction of a mine on national forest land they use for prayer violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The sun sets over Oak Flat Campground, a sacred site for Native Americans located 70 miles east of Phoenix, on June 3, 2023, in Miami, Ariz. Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagoteel, is a consecrated place used for prayer and ritual by many Native Americans in the region. Elders say the land was blessed by Usen, their Creator, and inhabited by Ga’an, the mountain spirits or angels who provide spiritual succor and guidance to seekers. (AP Photo/Ty O'Neil)

The sun sets over Oak Flat Campground in the Tonto National Forest, which is a place used for prayer and other rituals by Native Americans from the area. A 2014 federal law swaps the land to a mining company to build a copper mine. Ty O'Neil/AP

A divided federal appeals court Friday narrowly rejected a bid to halt a land swap that will allow the federal government to transfer thousands of acres of public land in Arizona to a mining company — a blow to tribal members and a nonprofit that have fought to protect an Apache holy site from being turned into one of the nation’s largest copper mines.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a 6 to 5 ruling affirmed a lower court’s denial of Apache Stronghold’s request for a preliminary injunction against the government’s transfer of Oak Flat — federal land within the Tonto National Forest — to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of Anglo-Australian firms Rio Tinto and BHP. Apache Stronghold is a nonprofit that includes members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe.

The en banc court in a split decision reaffirmed its support for a deal that was part of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act — and championed by the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — to trade Oak Flat for other land in Arizona.


While the mine’s developer welcomed the ruling, Apache Stronghold vowed in a statement to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court and warned the mine would transform Oak Flat, known in Apache as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, into a 2-mile-wide and 1,100-foot-deep crater.