LAS VEGAS — Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on Saturday criticized a last-minute addition to a major defense policy bill that would hand 2,400 acres of land in Arizona to an Australian mining corporation.
The land, part of the Tonto National Forest in Arizona, sits atop one of the nation’s largest copper deposits. It would be given to Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of Rio Tinto, the London- and Melbourne-based mining behemoth that produces aluminum, iron, copper, uranium, coal and other commodities across the globe.
But the land also includes sites sacred to the San Carlos Apache tribe, including Apache Leap, where warriors once leapt to their deaths rather than being killed or captured by U.S. troops moving west through the frontier.
The proposed land exchange had failed several times before, including once in 2013 when House Republicans scheduled a vote while Native American leaders were meeting with White House officials in Washington. Tribal activists pressured lawmakers into spiking the vote.
But it returned again this week, in the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, a must-pass bill that sets the nation’s defense policy. The exchange was among a handful of non-defense-related provisions in the bill, which would also create six new National Parks in states from Washington to Rhode Island to New Mexico, and 14 National Heritage Areas.
Jewell on Saturday called the land elements of the NDAA, many of which had been stalled in Congress for years, “a mixed bag.”
“I’m happy to see public lands bills make progress,” Jewell said. “The preference on public lands bills is that they go through a typical process of public lands bills and they get debate and discussion.”
But, she said of the Tonto National Forest land swap: “I think that is profoundly disappointing.”
Rio Tinto has been pushing for the land swap for years. The company says opening the area to copper mining will generate $61 billion in economic activity and 3,700 jobs over the next four decades, although environmentalists and those who oppose the deal dispute those numbers.
Reps. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) backed a House version in 2013, and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he would introduce companion legislation if it passed the House. The House passed the NDAA last week, and the Senate is expected to give final approval on Monday.