Oak Flat Is No Sacrifice Zone
All photos by Tara Kerzhner
I was surprised how cold it was on a mid-April morning in Central Arizona. In the pre-dawn light, I could still see the orange glow of the Phoenix metro area highlighting the rolling ridges of Apache Leap west of Oak Flat Campground. Chi’chil Biłdagoteel, or Oak Flat, is sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe and plays an important role in their medicine, food and ceremony. From 1989 to 2003, it was also home to the Phoenix Bouldering Contest, once a proving ground for some of the best American climbers. As the sun rose behind me, I heard sleeping bags rustle and a van door close as my friends Tara Kerzhner and Aaron Mike got up. This was their first time visiting Oak Flat. For us, as Indigenous climbers, this place represents an intersection of our identities.
A minute later, I heard the thump of crash pads hitting the ground as Tommy Caldwell geared up for our day. He says the climbing competitions held here decades ago in many ways made him the climber he is today, but this was the first time he’d been back to Oak Flat since. The four of us were here to spend time in this place together, to learn from the land and to learn more about the struggle to protect this area from a new mining project that could erase Oak Flat within our lifetimes.
Our pace quickened as the sun warmed the earth around us. We walked along the paved road that extended from our camp to a dirt pullout. From there, we saw a set of boulders across the canyon that seemed to fit the description from the guidebook. We dropped into the small canyon through a water-carved gulley in the volcanic slabs. Red manzanita bark glistened in the morning light. Through the scrub oaks, just a couple hundred feet away, a grey gravel mound topped by a trussed metal structure towered above us. This was the 7,000-foot mining shaft built by Resolution Copper to extract copper ore buried deep underground.
As a Navajo person growing up in the Southwest, I have seen the effects of settler-colonial mining practices that continue to ripple through my own community. In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Spanish imported Indigenous slave labor for their mines in Mexico, including untold numbers of Apache, Navajo and Pueblo people. Later, rumors of gold and silver strikes in the western deserts and mountains of the United States stoked expansionist fever dreams and violent Indigenous dispossession. The federal government codified these land grabs with the General Mining Law of 1872. This law permits individuals and corporations to prospect for minerals on federal public lands—to this day, it allows claims on any mineral discoveries to be staked by placing literal stakes in the ground. Critiques of this federal law are numerous: There are no provisions to address environmental protection; there are no royalty provisions included for tribes or the federal government; and there is no protection for tribal interests or consultation.
The mine proposed here by Resolution Copper would use a technique known as block caving, basically an upside-down version of the many open-pit mines common to this region. The mining team would bore a tunnel to extract rock from beneath the copper deposit, carving out a subterranean void that will eventually collapse beneath the weight of the earth above it. Estimates of the size of the sink hole slated for this mine vary. Best-case scenario, it may be almost 2 miles in diameter and 1,000 feet deep; the worst case is yet to be seen. Regardless of its final size, its effects are certain: destruction of key Indigenous cultural sites, climbing zones and wildlife habitat, and large withdrawals from the water table in an already arid region.
Despite the fact that Arizona and the entire Colorado River Basin are currently in one of the most severe droughts in the past millennia, Resolution Copper’s mine will drain hundreds of billions of gallons from nearby aquifers, effectively dewatering Oak Flat and destroying its vital springs and streams. In a 2021 testimony to Congress, James Wells, a third-party hydrologist, estimated the mine would require nearly 250 billion gallons of water, which is significantly higher than Resolution Copper’s estimates. That’s enough water to supply a city of 140,000 people for 50 years. Wells’ report cites the most recent Arizona Department of Water Resources study that “predicted demand to exceed supply into the foreseeable future,” even without the mine, and “irreversible loss of aquifer capacity due to overpumping.”
Of course, Resolution Copper assures us that their impact will be minimal and that they respect Indigenous communities. On their website, they claim:
“At Resolution Copper, we know we get the best results by listening to community perspectives and partnering with community stakeholders, including Native American tribes of Arizona and New Mexico who have historical ties to the area. We respect the sovereignty of tribal communities and recognize that tribes have cultural interests beyond their reservations. Resolution Copper is committed to preserving Native American cultural heritage while developing partnerships and bringing lasting benefits to the entire region.”
It’s worth noting that Resolution Copper is a joint venture created by two large multinational mining operations, Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton. Based on their past actions, you’d be right to doubt their sincerity. In 2020, BHP was poised to destroy more than 40 aboriginal sites in Western Australia to expand its iron ore mining. The plan was paused following outcry after Rio Tinto tore down a 46,000-year-old site in the Juukan Gorge in Australia that was held sacred to ancestors of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura people. In response to an official inquiry by the Australian government on the destruction of the Juukan Gorge site, Rio Tinto released a public statement: “As a business, we are committed to learning from this event to ensure the destruction of heritage sites of such exceptional archaeological and cultural significance never occurs again […],” and that they will reassess, “any activities that have the potential to impact heritage sites.”
For Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former chairman and councilman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and a longtime opponent of the Oak Flat Mine, the stakes of this fight are clear. From a press release put out by Apache Stronghold, Nosie’s nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting Oak Flat and its sacred sites, he says, “Anything on federal land is not safe, our existence has no bearing for we are still considered prisoners of war in this country. When it comes to religion, all religion is threatened, they own all land, and all property, that regardless of what is sacred or holy, it has no meaning.”
Nosie and Apache Stronghold have been fighting the Resolution Copper project since 2014, when the original land transfer that made this mine possible was signed into law. However, this fight is long-rooted, dating back to the earliest conflicts between colonizers and tribes in this region. Conflict and forced removal of the Apache peoples from Oak Flat began in the mid-1800s with the Jicarilla War and escalated over the following decades with the genocidal incursion of miners and settlers. The forced separation of the Apache from their land has since been used to undercut the tribes’ claims to this place, with supporters of expanded copper mining framing their connection as tenuous.
The disingenuousness of this argument is embedded in the land: As we crossed through groves of oaks, we saw several metates and grinding holes, which were likely used to grind acorns into flour, near lesser-visited boulders and alongside bolts at the top of highball climbs. (Tommy says that early bouldering competitions were concerned for the safety of their younger climbers and required taller problems to be toproped.)
In high school, I learned that the area where I grew up near the Four Corners was considered a “sacrifice zone.” This concept was used by the National Academy of Sciences to describe an area worth destroying, a tradeoff made by nuclear and energy policymakers during the Cold War. It was all for the sake of energy independence. The energy crisis in the early 1970s led to an increased demand for oil and gas exploration, and for the development of petroleum alternatives like coal liquefaction and oil shale. All of this sat underneath my ancestral homeland. Over 1,000 uranium mines and many uranium mills were built across the greater Southwest during the Cold War, largely on the lands of the Navajo Nation. Most of these sites are now abandoned. Left in their wake was radioactive contamination, destroyed sacred sites, depleted water aquifers and extensive health impacts on my people from pollution. Yet, this was deemed necessary in the name of national security—a way to safeguard our country from outside threats. For America, these kinds of sacrifices have been treated as necessary or the price of “progress.”
Our push for lower-carbon energy contributes to the demand for materials mines like Resolution Copper will produce: Semiconducting materials used within battery packs, electronics and our electrical grid all drive the global demand for copper. The screen on which you are reading these words, the equipment used to charge your device, perhaps the solar panels from which this electricity came from all need copper. It takes about 30 minutes to drive west from the Oak Flat Campground to the outer reaches of the Phoenix metro area, but it’s nearly 80 miles and would take close to an hour and a half with no traffic if you wished to drive across it. The significant changes needed for cities like this in a low-carbon energy future are already underway: solar panels cover many roofs, electric cars are increasingly common, electric scooters crowd sidewalks and nearly all the pedestrians walking along the artificial Tempe town lake are carrying smart phones—the scale and demand for resources for just this one city are incomprehensible.
Although Resolution Copper hasn’t vowed to sell ore that it would mine exclusively to clean energy innovation, it’s an association the company clearly wants to make. On Resolution Copper’s website, the first thing you’ll see is a video showing spools of copper giving way to fields of wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles. Underneath the slick graphic, the company claims its mine would “supply the world with the copper it needs to support ongoing technological and environmental innovation.”
Whether or not that’s the purpose for which Resolution Copper would sell much of the ore, it’s clear that copper is needed to help fuel an economy switching to clean energy. But we can’t lose sight of the environmental impact of extracting the resources necessary to build that future.
“Clean” or “renewable” energy simply means having reduced carbon emissions. It does not necessarily take equity or other environmental impacts into account. Some have described this perspective as “carbon tunnel vision.” We cannot give renewables, vehicle electrification and the electronics that come with them a full pass just because they produce fewer emissions than fossil fuels. As we push to address our climate crisis, we must be aware that sacrifice zones will continue to fall along existing lines of power created by colonization and racism. Is turning Oak Flat into a miles-wide hole a necessary sacrifice to transform cities like Phoenix into a glittering future metropolis?
At Oak Flat, Tara, Aaron, Tommy and I crested a ridge through a small gulley and gingerly navigated around a patch of sotol plants and small oak trees. The waxy stalks of the sotol plants towered above us while their blue-green, dagger-like leaves furled outward from their bases. Despite its prickly exterior, this plant is edible and used in many cultural traditions of the Apache people, including braiding ropes and weaving baskets. In front of us, three boulders cast a large shadow on the smooth volcanic rock emerging from the sandy dirt. There were obvious sequences on the middle boulder that could have been linked into a proud test piece, but in its fall zone sat another pair of centuries-old grinding holes and metates. This was not the place to climb.
The four of us sat beneath the boulder in the midday heat, next to the metates, feeling torn. There was no way to climb it without tromping over the grinding holes. The tension of our own competing desires seemed to mirror the other demands placed on this landscape. We looked out onto the rolling hills and winding canyons as we settled into our decision. We need to account for the whole picture on our path to a lower-carbon energy future, to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past and end up destroying what we set out to save. However noble the cause, nothing is worth sacrificing sacred spaces like Oak Flat.
Join the fight to save Oak Flat by supporting the Save Oak Flat Act and following Apache Stronghold on Instagram for news and events.
Help Save Oak Flat Now
Ask your members of Congress to cosponsor the Save Oak Flat Act.