Oak Flat is an Old Story  |  By Roger Featherstone  |

The Apache Leap Escarpment towers above the mining town of Superior, Arizona, an hour east of Phoenix. This site is sacred to Native Americans and lies on the western edge of the Oak Flat Plateau. An ecological and recreational haven, this larger area is under threat from two of the world’s larges mining companies.

In 2004, Rio Tinto and BHP, Billiton, formed a subsidiary called Resolution Copper to exploit a large mineral deposit more than a mile under the surface of Oak Flat. Oak Flat is public land, a part of the Tonto National Forest managed by the US Forest Service. Permitting a mine at Oak Flat is difficult. Part of Oak Flat this land has been protected from mining by an executive order signed by President Eisenhower in 1955. Additionally, the technology to mine a deposit that deep does not currently exist. Finally, the project faces massive opposition from Native American Tribes, as well as conservation, recreation, and historic preservation organizations. So, Rio Tinto asked for and received a Congressionally designated land exchange to privatize Oak Flat which would circumvent the normal permitting process for mining on public lands .

Photo above: Coatimundi, one of the unusual fauna found at Oak Flat; Photo by Roger Featherstone

The Land

Oak Flat is a thousand feet higher than the desert floor and is mostly desert riparian area. There are towering oak trees, perennial water, a unique assemblage of plants and animals with deep canyons, uplands, large boulders, towering spires, and rocky ridges.

Ga’an Canyon (known on maps as Devil’s Canyon) borders the east and south of Oak Flat and is a transition zone influenced by Sonoran Desert, interior chaparral, and Madrean vegetation communities, and is unique in Arizona.

An endangered Sonoran ocelot was killed near Oak Flat in 2010, and additional ocelot are still potentially present . Common black hawk (listed as threatened in AZ and sensitive by USFS), and peregrine falcon nest at Oak Flat. There is potential for Mexican spotted owls and yellow-billed cuckoo (both federally listed). Other wildlife includes the northernmost range of the coatimundi, ring-tailed cat, black bear, mountain lion, and bobcat.


Oak Flat is one of the best rock climbing and bouldering destinations in the United States. There are more than 2,500 published climbing routes, and from 1989 to 2004 this was the location of one of the largest bouldering competitions in the United States. The third annual Queen Creek Boulder Competition will be held in March at Oak Flat in 2016. Climbers, hikers, off-road vehicle enthusiasts, and bird-watchers all use Oak Flat. Church groups, Boy Scout troops, and a multitude of groups ranging from motorcycle clubs to medieval roleplaying enthusiasts use the campground.


Oak Flat is sacred land and is critical for the religious freedom of Native Americans. John Welch, a former historic preservation officer for the White Mountain Apache Tribe and a professor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, says about Oak Flat, “This is the best set of Apache archaeological sites ever documented, period, full stop.” Oak Flat and Ga’an Canyon are “where the spiritual beings that represent healing live ,” Vernelda Grant, tribal historic preservation officer for the San Carlos Apache Tribe says. “We have songs and ceremonies that are sung there…” Oak Flat is known in Apache as Chi’chil Bildagoteel. Not only is Oak Flat rich in the past history of the First Americans, but ceremonial and cultural use of Oak Flat continue on a regular basis.

The western boundary of Oak Flat is Apache Leap. In 1870 a band of Apache warriors were cornered by the US Cavalry at the edge of the escarpment and leapt to their death rather than surrender. As legend has it, tears from mourners solidified into rounded nodules of obsidian known as Apache tears. For years, the Tonto National Forest refused to recognize the spiritual and cultural significance of Oak Flat. This attitude has changed and in 2015, the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the Tonto National Forest nominated Oak Flat for the National Registry of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property. Predictably, Rio Tinto and its supporters, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Representatives Gosar (R-AZ) and Kirkpatrick (D-AZ) are fiercely fighting the nomination.

Location and details of Oak Flat and the proposed land exchange. Map: Center for Biological Diversity
Location and details of Oak Flat and the proposed land exchange. Map: Center for Biological Diversity

Land Exchange

The Oak Flat land exchange over-turns the Eisenhower mining withdrawal at Oak Flat, short circuits the normal permitting process, is the first bill to privatize a Native American sacred site on public land, and is may be the largest loss of recreational climbing opportunities on public land yet .

There have been 12 unsuccessful versions of the land exchange. The first version was introduced by former Congressman Rick Renzi in 2005. After years of battling the land exchange as a stand-alone bill by a coalition of Tribes, conservation, recreation, and historic preservation organizations, it was widely known that the land exchange was not passable.

California’s borax mine in Boron played a role in stopping a version of the land exchange. Rio Tinto owns the mine and in February of 2010, the company locked out 540 hourly workers represented by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. During the bitter battle over the lockout, Senator Boxer (D-CA) placed a hold on S 409, the Senate version of the Oak Flat land exchange at the time .

HR 687, the 2014 version of the House bill, , was stopped twice on the House floor by a bi-patrician coalition of House members led by Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK) and Grijalva (D-AZ ).

Subsequently, a thirteenth version of the land exchange appeared as a rider on the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 following the November, 2014, federal elections. As several Democratic Senators moved into a lets-make-a-deal mode after losing control of the Senate, Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Flake (R-AZ) were able to push the rider onto the bill in the dead of the night. The bill, including the land exchange, became law in December of 2014.

What the Land Exchange bill means

According to the new law, the land at Oak Flat remains in federal ownership until 60 days after the US Forest Service publishes a Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS). This is an important change, as earlier versions of the bill would have transferred ownership within a year. The writing of the FEIS is meaningless, however, as Congress has already made the decision to transfer the land and the new law truncates the process. The bottom line is that it will take the US Forest Service between six and ten years to conduct the EIS process. This allows time for the land exchange to be over-turned.

Mine design

Rio Tinto says that the ore body underneath Oak Flat is a cubic mile in size and lies a mile underground. The ore body includes copper, molybdenum, gold, and silver. The company is planning a block cave operation producing 1.6 billion tons of ore. A block cave mine is an upside-down open pit. The plan is to tunnel under the deposit and allow the ore body (with the help of explosives) to fall to the bottom where it would be crushed and brought to the surface for processing. The surface of Oak Flat would collapse into a crater 1,000 feet deep and up to two miles in diameter.

The ore would be concentrated at a facility just outside the town limits of Superior. The tailings (toxic waste) from the processing would be slurried in a pipeline to a tailings waste dump on more than 4,000 acres of public land (on the Tonto National Forest) between the towns of Superior and Queen Valley in the Queen Creek watershed. If Rio Tinto does not own the tailings dump, then it is not liable for subsequent problems. The concentrated minerals from the mine would be slurried to a loading and de-watering facility just one mile upstream from the town of Superior’s water wells, where the concentrate would be placed on railroad cars to be shipped to the Mexican seaport at Guaymas, Mexico, for shipment overseas (very probably China) for processing.

Current situation

The passage of the land exchange has brought worldwide attention to the fate of Oak Flat. This has given power to efforts to overturn the land exchange. In June of 2015, HR 2811, the Save Oak Flat Act, was introduced in the US House to repeal the land exchange. This bill currently has 36 co-sponsors. On November 5, 2015, US Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Senate version of the Save Oak Flat Act (S 2242) with Senators Heinrich (D-NM) and Baldwin (D-WI) as co-sponsors. The bills have the full support of US Native American Tribes and conservation organizations including the Sierra Club, Earthworks, and the Center for Biological Diversity.

The US Forest Service is still determining how the new laws effects the EIS process and the beginning of this process is not likely to begin until spring of 2016.

The struggle to protect Oak Flat has been going on for more than a decade and is likely to continue for at least that long. While the road to permanent protection of Oak Flat is indeed long and winding, citizens are confident that the mine can be stopped and Oak Flat protected. Current conditions, with the price of copper at a six-year low and predicted to go lower, and the mining industry in Arizona looking at the layoff of more than 800 miners in the next month, cannot hurt!

For more information go to: www.azminingreform.org

Roger Featherstone has been Director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition since 2009. The Arizona Mining Reform Coalition works to protect communities and the environment from inappropriate mining activities and is made up of conservation, recreation, and Native American organizations including the Grand Canyon Chapter of the Sierra Club.