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Tribes Halt Major Copper Mine on Ancestral Lands in Arizona

A company tried to bend the rules to dig a mile-wide pit in sacred lands, until the Tribes blocked the plan in court.

The proposed Rosemont Mine threatened Cienega Creek, where these children are playing.</

The proposed Rosemont Mine threatened Cienega Creek, where these children are playing.

Courtesy of Thomas Wiewandt / Save the Scenic Santa Ritas

Rising above the Arizona desert, the Santa Rita Mountains cradle 10,000 years of Indigenous history. The Tohono O’odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe, among numerous other tribes, have worshipped, foraged, hunted, and laid their ancestors to rest in the mountains for generations.

Mining corporation Hudbay Minerals has proposed to dig a mile-wide open-pit copper mine in the Santa Ritas, burying dozens of sites sacred to the Tribes under 1.8 billion tons of toxic waste. Construction of the mine, called Rosemont, would raze ancestral Hohokam burial grounds, a historic Hohokam village, and vital mountain springs.

For three years, Earthjustice has represented the Tohono O’odham in fighting Hudbay’s ill-conceived mine. In 2019, the Tribe successfully defeated the company’s attempt to bulldoze the eastern side of the Santa Rita Mountains in a lawsuit joined by the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Tribes. That victory was recently upheld in court in a ruling that overturns the U.S Forest Service's "arbitrary and capricious" approval of the mine.

“This landmark decision further validates that Rosemont's foreign owners have neither the legal right nor the valid mining claims for their proposed plan to destroy sacred sites beneath a mountain of poisonous mine waste,” said Tohono O’odham Nation Chairman Ned Norris Jr. “The ruling thoroughly dismantles the error-riddled process and reinforces the importance of protecting these sites and the entire region’s water supply. As decisive as this decision is, Rosemont's foreign investors will likely continue to try and profit through environmental and cultural destruction. We must not allow this to happen.”

The Chairman's instincts are correct: Hudbay is trying the same trick on the western side of the mountains, illegally rushing construction and bulldozing sacred ground without notifying the Tribes. Earthjustice has filed for an emergency halt to the construction.

Austin Nunez is the former chairman of the San Xavier District, Tohono O’odham Nation, which joined with the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Tribes to fight a proposed open-pit copper mine on sacred sites in Arizona.
Austin Nunez is the former chairman of the San Xavier District, Tohono O’odham Nation, which joined with the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Tribes to fight a proposed open-pit copper mine on sacred sites in Arizona.
Mamta Popat for Earthjustice

Tohono O’odham families gather at the sacred sites to reinforce their connection to the desert that has sheltered them for generations. During these gatherings, tribal members will collect yucca, acorns, wild onion, plants for medicinal purposes, or bear grass for basket making.

“When our children were younger, we’d take them to the proposed Rosemont site and the desert to be with nature,” says Austin Nuñez, the previous chairman of the Tribe, whose tenure oversaw the start of the legal challenge. He laughs, remembering the calming effect of the environment. “It’s amazing. When they were out there, the children wouldn’t fight. They’d enjoy it. It’s so peaceful.”

The Santa Rita Mountains are one of Arizona’s most biodiverse regions, with flora and fauna endemic to the Southwest. Undulating mountain ranges, part of the Sky Islands, frame a desert floor spotted with spiky yucca plants. The Santa Ritas are home to several endangered species, including the jaguar and southwestern willow flycatcher.

Critical to this desert ecosystem are freshwater streams, which nourish the land like capillaries through a body. The streams were the lifeblood of the Tohono O’odham’s ancestors, and are considered holy by the Tribe — making Hudbay’s plans to pollute them with heavy metals and deplete the water table especially devastating.

The only way Hudbay could get away with creating a colossal mine on public lands was by an industry sleight-of-hand using an antiquated mining law.

A Sonoran desert tortoise nibbles on a prickly pear cactus. The Rosemont Mine would have dirtied the tortoise's habitat.
A Sonoran desert tortoise nibbles on a prickly pear cactus. The Rosemont Mine would have disturbed the tortoise's habitat.
Courtesy of Brian Forbes Powell / Save the Scenic Santa Ritas

The Mining Law of 1872 grants companies a right to use public lands on mining claims — if the land is discovered to contain a valuable mineral deposit. Hudbay began its mining venture by filing patented claims overlying the proposed mine pit, which contained valuable minerals, including copper. They also filed hundreds of unpatented claims on adjacent lands with no mining value, where they intended to dump over a billion tons of toxic waste rock and tailings. The Forest Service acquiesced to this land grab, assuming Hudbay had a right to these unpatented claims without bothering to check whether Hudbay had discovered the requisite valuable mineral deposit on those claims.

This is a common abuse of the Mining Law, especially for gigantic open-pit mines like Rosemont. As mining companies began building massive industrial-scale operations in the 20th century, they twisted the law to fit their need for thousands of acres of additional public lands for waste dumps. The Forest Service has simply turned a blind eye on these baseless rights, letting companies run roughshod over our public lands.

In 2017, the Tohono O’odham turned to Earthjustice for help, after being sidelined by the Forest Service during the mine’s development. Through this partnership, the Tribe imparted the deep importance of the Santa Ritas to attorney Stu Gillespie.

“One of the most fulfilling parts of this case was sharing food with the Tohono O’odham leaders, [and] understanding their cultural ways of life and how important the sacred springs are,” says Gillespie. People of all backgrounds can relate to the importance of preserving burial grounds, he notes, saying, “We wouldn’t want someone building a mine in Arlington Cemetery.”

The case moved slowly in the courts, but the company was moving quickly to start excavation. As Hudbay brazenly challenged the Tribes by bringing machinery to the mine site, Gillespie could see that he needed to take the bold step of seeking a preliminary injunction to stop any digging from starting. Preliminary injunctions often aren’t granted, because they’re an exceptional remedy of last resort and parties must prove that they face immediate irreparable harm.

Adding to the urgency, Hudbay planned to hastily clear all of the lands that are burial grounds for the Tohono O’odham Nation’s ancestors – the Hohokam. In the 1980s, another company prepared to mine the same site and encountered the burial grounds. The Anamax Mining Company soon went bankrupt and abandoned the site, leaving graves and the ancient village grounds open to the elements. Some of the Tribes’ ancestral remains were shipped to the University of Arizona, where they were warehoused for thirty years while the Tribes fought to repatriate them. They were only returned to the Tohono O’odham Nation several years ago.  The Tribes were adamant about preventing a repeat of history.

Yellow-billed cuckoos are declining in number, but Cienega Creek provides a safe haven for them.
Yellow-billed cuckoos are declining in number, but Cienega Creek provides a safe haven for them.
Courtesy of Steve Baranoff / Save the Scenic Santa Ritas

The Tribe’s challenge to the eastern mine proposal succeeded beyond expectations. Instead of granting a preliminary injunction, the judge went a step further and definitively ruled on the merits of the Tribes’ case itself. The Court held that the Forest Service made a “crucial error” by assuming Hudbay had a right to use public lands without any evidence of a valuable mineral deposit, and that this error “tainted the Forest Service’s evaluation of the Rosemont Mine from the start.” With this argument, he prevented any mining activities from going forward, and called out the Forest Service for abdicating its duty to protect our public lands.

The judge in the case “identified the fatal flaw in the Forest Service’s reasoning,” says Gillespie. “He laid out an unbroken line of Supreme Court decisions, saying, ‘No, you don’t have rights under the Mining Law to pollute this land under billions of tons of waste rock, without evidence of valuable minerals.’”

The Santa Rita mountains loom over the desert in southern Arizona.
The Santa Rita mountains loom over the desert in southern Arizona.
Courtesy of Frank Walsh / Save the Scenic Santa Ritas

The mining company hasn’t given up trying to raze the Tohono O’odham’s ancestral land for profit. Despite losing its water permit in the 2019 court order, Hudbay has nevertheless expanded its mine plans to include over 3,400 acres on the west side of the Santa Rita mountains. The company began breaking ground – again – without informing the Tribes. In May, we demanded an emergency halt to this new illegal activity, which is pending in court.

“Rosemont is once again attempting to push forward with its destructive project, causing permanent harm to sacred sites and waterways,” says Chairman Norris. “Their continued disregard for tribal consultation, mitigation, and other obligations under federal law further demonstrates why this latest damaging action must be halted immediately. The Nation will continue to work with fellow tribes to protect our cultural and natural resources from reckless destruction by a foreign mining company.”

This blog was originally published in November 2019. It was updated in May 2022.