Competing interests have ignited a tug of war between Superior, a town of about 3,000 people who want a huge copper mine built there for its economic benefits, and Native American groups that consider the land sacred and are fighting to protect it from disturbance.
The 6.7-square-mile (17.3 square-kilometer) Oak Flat is a verdant oasis in an arid landscape dotted with towering saguaro cacti, majestic rock spires and sweeping canyons. It is also here that Resolution Copper Mining, a joint subsidiary of British and Australian mining giants, Rio Tinto and BHP, wants to remove layers of rock to extract copper from deep underground.
Native American tribal members fighting plans for an enormous copper mine on land they consider sacred say they are increasingly worried U.S. officials will publish an environmental review paving the way for the project even as they await a federal appeals court ruling in the case.
An Apache group battling a foreign mining firm that wants to build one of the largest copper mines in the United States on what tribal members say is sacred land will get a new chance to make its point Tuesday when a full federal appeals court panel takes another look at the case.
The federal courts have generally denied Native American religious beliefs the same protections afforded other, more convenient religions under the law.
A planned mine at Oak Flat does not interfere with the ability of Native Americans to practice their religion, a federal appeals court has ruled.