PHOENIX — An attorney for members of the San Carlos Apache tribe on Friday asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco to back a nonprofit group's efforts to keep a copper mining company from gaining federal Arizona land the Apaches consider sacred.
"We are talking about the survival of the Apache people," attorney Luke Goodrich told the panel, arguing that an end to religious activities on the land known as Oak Flat would help spell an end to the tribe.
Joan Pepin, an attorney for the U.S. government, argued the land transfer must go ahead because it was part of legislation approved by Congress. The land has been set to be transferred to Resolution Copper, as part of a provision in a must-pass 2014 defense bill, once the final environmental impact statement is published.
The three-member panel did not immediately release a ruling. The judges will now confer in private and write a decision that may not be issued for as long as three months.
Goodrich said the group could take the case to the Supreme Court if the appeals court sides with the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that has planned the land transfer.
Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit organization representing tribe members, sued the federal government in Phoenix federal court in January to block the pending transfer of the land near the community of Superior, which the Apache tribe says is important to its religion.
The group has hoped to stop publication of the final environmental review that would let the transfer proceed.
"Our work continues," Apache Stronghold leader Wendsler Nosie, Sr. said after Friday's hearing, encouraging all tribal governments and tribal members to stand together. "We have heard loud and clear (the government's) position."
U.S. District Judge Steven Logan in February rejected a request from Apache Stronghold to keep the U.S. Forest Service from transferring the land to Resolution Copper, a joint venture of global mining giants BHP and Rio Tinto.
Attorneys for the Forest Service have argued in filings that the land legally belongs to the United States and that transferring its own property isn't a substantial burden to the Apache group's ability to practice its religion.
But Apache tribal members argue otherwise.
They call the mountainous area Chi'chil Bildagoteel. The land has ancient oak groves and traditional plants that tribal members say are essential to their religion and culture.
Resolution Copper has said it would not deny Apaches access to Oak Flat after it receives the land and for as long as it's safe. But the project would eventually swallow the site in a deep hole, something that ultimately would make any visits impossible.
Resolution Copper has said the mine could have a $61 billion impact over the project's expected 60 years and employ up to 1,500 people. It would be one of the largest copper mines in the United States.
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