Congress Raids Ancestral Native American Lands With Defense Bill

12/03/2014 05:35 pm ET | Updated Dec 12, 2014

WASHINGTON -- When Terry Rambler, the chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, woke up Wednesday in Washington, D.C., it was to learn that Congress was deciding to give away a large part of his ancestral homeland to a foreign mining company.

Rambler came to the nation’s capital for the White House Tribal Nations Conference, an event described in a press announcement as an opportunity to engage the president, cabinet officials and the White House Council on Native American Affairs “on key issues facing tribes including respecting tribal sovereignty and upholding treaty and trust responsibilities,” among other things.

Rambler felt things got off to an unfortunate, if familiar, start when he learned that the House and Senate Armed Services Committee had decided to use the lame-duck session of Congress and the National Defense Authorization Act to give 2,400 acres of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona to a subsidiary of the Australian-English mining giant Rio Tinto.

“Of all people, Apaches and Indians should understand, because we’ve gone though this so many times in our history,” Rambler said.

Rambler knew there was a possibility that supporters of the move -- which failed twice on the House floor last year -- would slip the deal into the must-pass legislation, but aides and officials involved had declined to reveal it. Even Tuesday evening, when Republicans and Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee released summaries of the bill, the land deal was left out.

Rambler and other opponents couldn’t find out until late Tuesday night when the bill, named the “Carl Levin and Howard P. ‘Buck’ McKeon National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2015” (after the retiring Senate and House committee chairmen), was finally posted online. The news that Apache burial, medicinal and ceremonial grounds would be given to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, was on page 1,105.

“The first thing I thought about was not really today, but 50 years from now, probably after my time, if this land exchange bill goes through, the effects that my children and children’s children will be dealing with,” Rambler said in an interview.

The land includes territory where Apaches gather medicinal plants and acorns -- a food source that Rambler said has sustained his people for as long as they know. It also surrounds the Apache Leap, a summit from which trapped Apaches once jumped to their deaths rather than be killed by settlers in the late 1800s.

“Since time immemorial people have gone there. That’s part of our ancestral homeland," Rambler said, referring to the overall area in question. "We’ve had dancers in that area forever -- sunrise dancers -- and coming-of-age ceremonies for our young girls that become women. They’ll seal that off. They’ll seal us off from the acorn grounds, and the medicinal plants in the area, and our prayer areas.”

There are supposed to be two areas excluded from mining, including Apache Leap, but the bill specifies Resolution Copper can get permission in just 30 or 90 days to drill among the oaks.

Rio Tinto has pursued the deal for a decade, and it was apparently pushed into the NDAA largely thanks to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). It passed the House once in 2011, but when leaders brought it to the floor twice last year, they couldn’t find enough votes, and pulled it. Most Democrats opposed it and growing numbers of Republicans were concerned about how it was being conducted. To many, it looked like a sweetheart deal being made outside of the regular process of dealing with federal land. And some were unhappy that the prime beneficiary, Rio Tinto, also owns a uranium mine in Africa with Iran. Others worried that most of the copper will go to China, which owns 10 percent of Rio Tinto.

The argument for the land swap -- the government will acquire other lands in exchange -- is economic development and jobs. The company claims it will generate $61 billion in economic activity and 3,700 direct and indirect jobs over 40 years. Opponents dispute those numbers, but Rambler is not sure they matter, even if they are accurate.

“It seems like us Apaches and other Indians care more about what this type of action does to the environment and the effects it leaves behind for us, while others tend to think more about today and the promise of jobs, but not necessarily what our creator God gave to us,” he said.

He is particularly worried about the longterm impact. The company intends to use a variety of “block cave” mining that digs underneath the ore and causes it to collapse from its own weight. Resolution Copper describes the process in a video:

The land above such mines eventually cracks and subsides.

“What those mountains mean to us is that when the rain and the snow comes, it distributes it to us,” Rambler said. “It replenishes our aquifers to give us life.” He’s not sure how that will happen once the land starts subsiding. Resolution Copper promises to monitor it.

In comments to The Huffington Post on Tuesday, spokespeople for the mine said that it had filed an operating plan with the federal Forest Service and was starting a review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which is supposed to ensure that federal lands are protected.

But Rambler found little assurance in that, since NEPA only applies while the land belongs to the federal government.

“This is what will happen -- the law in one area says there will be consultation, but the law in another area of the bill says the land exchange will happen within one year of enactment of this bill,” Rambler noted, correctly. “So no matter what we’re doing within that one year, the consultation part won’t mean anything after one year. Because then it’s really theirs after that.”

Two properties within the land would remain in the hands of the federal government, one around the Apache Leap and one an area called Oak Flats. Outside of those places, the federal government would have no say under NEPA, an official with the Bureau of Land Management said.

“We would only have to do NEPA on any activity that would take place on remaining federal land,” said Arizona BLM official Carrie Templin. The company promises to stop 1,500 feet short of Apache Leap, but reserves the right to drill in Oak Flats.

The Arizona exchange is not the only land measure in the defense bill.

In fact, there are dozens of other land-related items, including at least one more that is angering Native Americans. A transfer of 1,600 acres from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State for industrial development has also sparked protest by tribes, who note that the area also contains lands important to them, and which are already undergoing various federal evaluations that would be short-circuited by the legislation.

Still another deal would benefit a Native American corporation in Alaska called Sealaska. It is opposed by environmental groups, though, because it would open some 70,000 acres of the Tongass National Forest to logging.

Environmental groups approve of some of the deals in the bill, but those have been attracting anger on the right. Two leaders of the Heritage Foundation campaign arm described them in an op-ed as a "land grab" that had no place in a defense bill. Another, Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment, also slammed it in a statement.

“The federal lands package added to the National Defense Authorization Act is a backroom deal that would lock up use of hundreds of thousands of acres of land,” said Ebell, although it is likely he would favor the part of the Rio Tinto deal that allows mining since he favors using federal land for resources. “Many of these federal land lockups could never be enacted on their own if debated and voted in the light of day."

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) also doesn't think the land bills belong in the defense measure, and has vowed to stall the bill as long as possible until they are removed.

The bill is expected to be voted on in the House as soon as this week, and sent to the Senate in a manner that does not allow it to be amended. If anything is to change in the bill, it would have to happen before then, and House leaders would have to agree to allow amendment votes.

UPDATE: 11:15 p.m. -- Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) tried Wednesday night to offer an amendment to remove the Resolution Copper deal from the defense bill, but lost in the House Rules Committee on a 6-4 vote, with three Democrats supporting him, and his GOP colleagues voting against him. The Rules Committee determines how measures will be considered on the floor. It decided to give the NDAA one hour of debate, with no vote on Cole's amendment.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.

Also on HuffPost:

Politicians On Pot

CONVERSATIONS