A measure selling the lands to a foreign mining company was slipped into a defense bill at the last minute.
Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) introduced a bill on Thursday that would repeal a controversial measure giving sacred Native American lands in Arizona to a foreign-owned mining company.
The measure, called the the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, was inserted into the $585 billion National Defense Authorization Act of 2015 by Republican Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake in December.
The deal would allow a subsidiary of the mining conglomerates Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton, called Resolution Copper, to mine a massive copper deposit in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The Apache use a section of the forest, called Oak Flat, for religious ceremonies and consider it one of their holy sites. Though the mining company has said it would work with local tribes to ensure their concerns are heard and conduct environmental analyses, the Apache say digging a massive mine under their ancestral lands will inevitably damage sacred ceremonial and burial grounds.
The bill, which is also sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), would repeal the land exchange. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) introduced the same bill in the House earlier this year and had been looking for a senator to sponsor the bill in the upper chamber.
“Too many times our Native American brothers and sisters have seen the profits of huge corporations put ahead of their sovereign rights,” Sanders said in a statement. “It is wrong that a backroom deal in Washington could lead to the destruction of a sacred area that is so important to so many. We must defend the hundreds of thousands of Americans who are standing in opposition to this giveaway of our natural resources to foreign corporations.”
Resolution Copper says the deal will generate $61 billion in economic activity and 3,700 jobs over several decades. But Native Americans say any benefits are outweighed by the violation of their rights that will occur if the mining goes ahead. Members of the Apache tribe traveled from Arizona to Washington, D.C., in July to draw attention to the issue, rallying at the Capitol against the exchange.
Sanders voted against the defense bill that included the mining measure, but Baldwin voted for it. The bill included a measure she had championed to return ancestral lands in Wisconsin owned by the military to local native nations.