Oak Flat land transfer halted, but not canceled

The U.S. Department of Agriculture granted a temporary reprieve on the looming transfer of sacred land.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has rescinded an environmental review that cleared the way for the transfer of Oak Flat to an international mining company.

In a statement Monday, the USDA announced that it will take additional time to consult with tribal nations on the “environmental, cultural and archaeological” impacts of the land transfer. The Oak Flat area, named Chi’ chil Biłdagoteel by the Apache, is sacred to a number of Native American peoples in and around Arizona’s Tonto National Forest. The move comes after a recent memo from the Biden Administration pledged to strengthen relationships with tribal nations and ensured tribal consultation on environmental matters.

“USDA has concluded that additional time is necessary to fully understand concerns raised by Tribes and the public and the project’s impacts to these important resources and ensure the agency’s compliance with federal law,” the USDA’s statement read.

The pullback of the environmental review means the land transfer won’t be held to a 2014 mandate requiring transfers take place within 60 days of the publication of final environmental materials. By this mandate, the deadline for the swap would have been later this month.

It’s a minor victory for environmentalists and tribal advocacy organizations like Apache Stronghold, which filed a lawsuit in January contesting the transfer. Leaders at Apache Stronghold stressed that the fight is far from over, and Monday’s decision merely “(changed) the execution date,” according to attorney Michael Nixon.

“They are just attempting a temporary strategic retreat,” Apache Stronghold leader Dr. Wendsler Nosie Sr. said in a statement. “They still intend to try and give away our sacred land.”

The USDA and the Forest Service acknowledged that more action would be needed to truly protect the Oak Flat area.

“Because the [project] was directed under the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, long term protection of the site will likely require an act of Congress,” the USDA statement said.