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Bikers, bands and barristers: Oak Flat copper mine plan draws a wide range of opponents

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Mario Tsosie and more than two dozen other motorcycle riders rumbled into Oak Flat Campground last month with a mission and a message.

“We had riders come from San Diego, Fresno, Orange County and Los Angeles,” said Tsosie, a Navajo who rides with Redrum Motorcycle Club, the world’s largest Indigenous-based biker group. “It was pretty exciting.”

Tsosie, a member of the Valley of the Sun Chapter of the club, said the Feb. 21 caravan to Oak Flat, about 70 miles east of Phoenix, was almost a last-minute affair. The club had just two weeks to plan the 41-mile ride from San Carlos, capital of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, to the campground. “We’ve been looking for the right time to do this,” he said.

Wendsler Nosie, head of the grassroots group Apache Stronghold, has been living at the campground since November 2019 to focus opposition on a plan by Resolution Copper to build a huge copper mine beneath the site, land considered sacred by many Apaches and other tribes in Arizona.

He seemed surprised when a few dozen motorcycles arrived, said Tsosie. But once the club members explained that they were there to offer support and prayer, the meeting went well.

“It became pretty emotional,” said Tsosie.

Bikers decked out in club colors, jackets and bandannas retrieved hand drums from their saddlebags and delivered an honor song. Nosie discussed why he had relocated to his ancestral home in Oak Flat.

Wendsler Nosie Sr., former San Carlos Apache Tribe Chairman and leader of Apache Stronghold.

Redrum’s president and founder, Cliff Mateus, had traveled from New York to join the local chapters and out-of-state club members on the ride. Pronounced “Red Drum,” the club engages in supportive activities like raising funds for pandemic relief and medical needs and honors a Native-based code of ethics, said Mateus, who is Quechua and Taino.

“We have a commitment on a spiritual level to stand up for Earth and sacred sites,” Mateus said.

“We stand with those who say ‘enough is enough.'”

Watch video: Redrum Motorcycle Club & Society visits Oak Flat

Tsosie and his fellow riders are part of a group of disparate people and organizations to come out in support of Apache Stronghold, Nosie and several Southwestern tribes as they fight to prevent the handover of Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, to a British-Australian mining firm.

A law firm specializing in religious liberty cases, a Native blues rock band, a Catholic university law school, students from a Jesuit-run high school in Phoenix, and members of Congress have joined longtime opponents of the mine such as Repairers of the Breach, the Poor People’s Campaign, tribes and environmental groups,even as the clock has been at least temporarily stopped on the land exchange needed for Resolution to start work.

Even a federal agency that works on historic site preservation issues has pulled out of the environmental study process, saying the plan as published will not prevent the site from becoming a giant sinkhole. 

For now, opponents will watch what the federal government does next. The U.S. Forest Service rescinded the final environmental impact statement March 1 after a directive from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The land exchange process will be delayed several months as the forest service consults with tribes and other interested parties.

‘The law has done a poor job with Native Americans’

The deal to swap about 2,400 acres of Tonto National Forest land for 5,376 acres of private land to Resolution Copper was made with a last-minute amendment attached to a must-pass national defense spending bill in December 2014 by the late Sen. John McCain and both Republican and Democratic congressmen.

The final environmental impact statement was published by the U.S. Forest Service Jan. 15, which started a 60-day period during which the land swap must be finalized. That period is now on hold after the Forest Service withdrew its decision on the project.

The copper, which lies 7,000 feet below ground level, would be mined using a method known as block cave mining, or panel caving, which would leave a giant sinkhole where Oak Flat now stands.


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