BJC-led coalition urges President Biden to protect sacred Oak Flat from devastating mining operations

by | Jul 22, 2021

A letter to President Joe Biden signed by nearly 60 religious and religious freedom groups asks for more action from the administration to protect sacred land located in the Tonto National Forest known as Chí’chil Biłdagoteel (translated as “Oak Flat”). Without action, multinational mining companies are poised to destroy it for the copper located deep beneath its surface.

The interfaith coalition BJC brought together warns that “[i]f the administration and Congress fail to work together to protect Oak Flat, the Western Apache peoples will suffer the permanent closure and total destruction of their sacred site.”

Here is an excerpt explaining the significance of the site:

Oak Flat is part of the ancestral homelands of not only the Apache, but also the Yavapai, Hopi, Zuni, and many other Tribes in the Southwest. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property because for centuries it has been the site of religious and cultural ceremonies, a burial ground, and a place for tribal members to find medicinal plants, food, and water. Just as the Abrahamic faiths hold various parts of Jerusalem as sacred because of unique encounters with G-d, the Apache believe Oak Flat is sacred because it is one place where prayers can go directly to the Creator who gave life to all things.

As I explained in a post earlier this year, a legislative provision buried in the 2015 defense spending bill directs the land to be given to Resolution Copper Mining LLC – a joint venture of two foreign mining companies – soon after an environmental impact study is issued. After a federal court rejected religious freedom claims brought by a group of Apache Tribe members, the current Department of Agriculture withdrew the Trump administration’s study just before the land transfer was scheduled to take place, temporarily halting the move. Still, more action is needed to rescind the transfer altogether. The coalition in its letter urges the president and Congress to enact the Save Oak Flat Act into law and protect the land permanently.

In a piece for BJC’s Medium channel, Chairman Terry Rambler of the San Carlos Apache Tribe explains the devastating impact of the planned mining project known as the Resolution Copper Mine:

Resolution Copper plans to destroy Chí’chil Biłdagoteel to develop a massive mine. The sprawling operation will plunder the groundwater, create a massive toxic waste dump and industrialize a vast portion of the Tonto National Forest. In addition to Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, hundreds of our cultural resources will be destroyed. The mine will enrich shareholders of two of the world’s largest mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto. The raw copper will almost certainly be exported overseas, most likely to China. BHP and Rio Tinto each have a notorious history of destroying sacred aboriginal sites.


Would Resolution’s supporters callously dismiss religious beliefs if an ore body were located beneath their church, cathedral, the Vatican, Arlington National Cemetery or Mt. Sinai? The answer is a resounding no.

“Massive mine” is perhaps understating the size of Resolution Copper. The coalition’s letter explains that the hole resulting from the extensive excavation at the sacred site would be large enough to engulf the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and “deep enough that if the Washington Monument stands upright at the bottom, it barely reaches the midway depth of the crater.”

Kudos to these diverse organizations for speaking with one voice in support of religious liberty for all. You can read the entire letter and view the list of signatories here.