Judge will not stop Resolution Copper land transfer in Arizona

February 15, 2021

The land exchange between the Tonto National Forest and Resolution Copper that was first passed with bipartisan support in December 2014 is expected to finally move forward in March after a federal judge said he would not stop the transfer.

U.S. District Judge Steven Logan denied a request from Native American groups who have sought to block the land exchange because the land in question holds religious and cultural importance to the tribes.

Reuters reported that the judge’s decision is likely to escalate the clash between members of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Tribe, who consider the land home to deities, and Rio Tinto and minority partner BHP Group Plc, who have spent more than $1 billion on the project without producing any copper.

The ruling means the land transfer can now take place by mid-March under a timeline approved by Congress and then-President Barack Obama in 2014.

Logan, an Obama appointee, said the group of Native Americans who brought the suit lacked standing and that the government has the right to give the land to whomever it chooses.

Tribal members claimed the U.S. government has illegally occupied the land for more than 160 years, but Logan sided with government attorneys by finding that Washington gained the land in an 1848 treaty with Mexico.

Logan’s ruling was related to an injunction request. Apache Stronghold had also asked for a jury trial to determine, in part, whether the U.S. government can give the land away. It was not immediately clear when that trial could take place as U.S. courts have prioritized criminal cases during the coronavirus pandemic.

Some Native Americans work for and support the Resolution project, though many others have vowed to oppose it forcefully.

In January, Logan declined to block the publication of an environmental study that started the 60-day countdown for the land swap.

The Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act is one of more than 80 land bills that were part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in 2014, and members of the Arizona Congressional delegation championed it. The final legislation included important changes based on nearly a decade of feedback from a wide range of stakeholders, including the San Carlos Apache tribe, environmental groups and the Town of Superior. It is the only Congressionally-mandated land exchange bill requiring a comprehensive environmental review under the NEPA.
 

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