FLAGSTAFF, AZ – Wendsler Nosie Sr. is drawn to a mountainous area in central Arizona where he and other Apaches have harvested medicinal plants, held coming-of-age ceremonies and gathered acorns for generations.
On Thursday, he’ll start a three-day journey to make a permanent home in the area known as Chi’chil Bildagoteel, or Oak Flat, in protest of a proposed copper mine made possible by a federal land exchange.
The Resolution Copper mine near Superior would be one of the largest such mines in North America, using techniques known as block-cave mining that call for digging underneath the ore body and setting off explosions to extract it.
The technique generally has a smaller imprint than open-pit mines common around Arizona, but still it would leave a depression 1,000 feet (304.8 meters) deep and about 1.5 miles (2.41 kilometers) wide.
Nosie and others have been protesting at Oak Flat Campground since 2015, the year after the late Sen. John McCain added a rider to a defense spending bill to transfer federal land to Resolution Copper. Nosie said the intermittent religious gathering has not done much to change views in Washington.
The U.S. Forest Service released a draft environmental impact statement earlier this year and received about 34,000 comments that it is analyzing. It expects to finalize the document next year and issue a record of decision.
Barring any legal challenges, 3.75 square miles (9.71 sq. kilometers) of federal land would then be transferred to Resolution Copper — a joint venture of global mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP — in exchange for land the company owns.
Companion bills in the U.S. House and Senate to rescind the land exchange haven’t gained much traction in Congress.
So, Nosie is going to his ancestral home.
He plans to walk the 45 miles (72.42 kilometers) from the San Carlos Apache reservation to Oak Flat and stay indefinitely somewhere off the main access road to the campground.
The former tribal chairman and councilman hand-delivered a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington earlier this week. In it, he refers to Earth as a living being — reflecting the Apache relationship to the land — and equates mining to murder.
“This is my religious rights, my indigenous right and my inherent right to return home to protect it from being murdered and protect our future generations, those yet to be born, a right to their identity and religious beliefs,” he wrote.
The Forest Service generally has a 14-day limit on camping but made an exception for tribal members that recognizes the political relationship with federally recognized tribes, forest officials said.
“They have an area they have been occupying off and on, and they’re welcome to continue that,” Tonto National Forest spokeswoman Carrie Templin said.
In a special management area tied to the land exchange, dozens of warriors leapt to their deaths from a ridge adjacent to the proposed copper mine rather than surrender to U.S. forces during westward expansion. Other Apaches became prisoners of war, some on what’s now the San Carlos Apache reservation.
The Forest Service has said it would work with tribes to protect the area known as Apache Leap and ensure tribes have access. Mining, livestock grazing and overnight camping would be prohibited on the nearly 840 acres.
Resolution Copper said Oak Flat Campground will be open to the public as long as it’s safe to do so. Construction of the mine would take about a decade, and the ore wouldn’t be removed for another several years.
Resolution spokesman Hesston Klenk says the company has been working with the communities, government agencies and tribes to address concerns.
“Through this regular dialogue we continue to find ways to create relationships and identify mutually beneficial partnership opportunities to preserve cultural heritage on the land we impact,” Klenk said.
Nosie said he was hopeful the federal government would protect Oak Flat and other sites sacred to Native American tribes.
He doesn’t have solid plans for the route he’ll take there, for a dwelling, or for food, clothing and other supplies. Instead, the 60-year-old said he has faith that the environment will reveal to him a plan and guide him in ceremonies.
“I’m going to prepare this place and also pray for a miracle,” he said. “What’s going to stop this is the people of this country stand up.”
One of Nosie’s daughters, Vanessa, said she’s worried about her father’s safety but keeps in mind that he is doing the creator’s work. She said the family will step in as needed.
“Those who were imprisoned at San Carlos were told someday that they were going to be freed and they could go home, and that never happened,” she said. “So my dad has made it clear to us that someday that’s going to happen, and that day has come.”