Tribes Halt Major Copper Mine on Ancestral Lands in Arizona
By Alison Cagle
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 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. The mine's construction would raze ancestral Hohokam burial grounds, a historic Hohokam village and vital mountain springs.
Represented by Earthjustice, the Tohono O'odham fought Hudbay's ill-conceived mine in court, joined by the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui tribes. This summer, a judge ruled in favor of the three tribes, halting the mine in its tracks and directing the Forest Service to protect these public lands from the devastating impacts of the mine.
"Our relationship to the land is first and foremost," said Austin G. Nuñez, chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation's San Xavier District in Tucson. "When our Hohokam ancestors' laid their loved ones in their final resting place, they never envisioned having them disturbed. We make every effort to not disturb them. We still feel their spirits today."
The proposed Rosemont Mine threatened Cienega Creek, where these children are playing. Thomas Wiewandt
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," said Nuñez. 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.
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 filed 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," said Gillespie. People of all backgrounds can relate to the importance of preserving burial grounds, he noted, adding, "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.
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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," said 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. Frank Walsh / Save the Scenic Santa Ritas
The judge's ruling could set a precedent among similar mining claims that abuse the Mining Law. By clearly identifying the Forest Service's obligation to regulate unpatented mining claims, this victory could make it harder for giant mining companies to exploit ancestral lands for Native American tribes and pollute precious ecosystems.
"The federal government and Hudbay tried to put up as many arguments as possible, but it was all smoke and mirrors," said Gillespie. "The judge cut through that really clearly. It's a powerful decision that stands for the proposition that nobody should get a free pass to wreak havoc on our public lands."
The victory is deeply felt among the Tohono O'odham, who see in this ruling a validation of Indigenous sovereignty over corporate schemes to desecrate their ancestral land.
"The judge's ruling shows that there is hope in the system," said Chairman Nuñez. "There are good people who believe in the sovereignty of Native nations, and their fundamental, inherent right to land and water. It has reinforced our vow to protect and enhance the lands we do have. We prayed that that mine would never be built. So it felt like our prayers had been answered."
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By Robert J. Orth, Jonathan Lefcheck and Karen McGlathery
A century ago Virginia's coastal lagoons were a natural paradise. Fishing boats bobbed on the waves as geese flocked overhead. Beneath the surface, miles of seagrass gently swayed in the surf, making the seabed look like a vast underwater prairie.
Why Didn’t Seagrasses Recover Naturally?<p>Development, nutrient runoff and other human impacts have damaged marshes, mangroves, coral reefs and seagrasses in many bays and estuaries worldwide. Loss or shrinkage of these key habitats has reduced commercial fisheries, increased erosion, made coastlines more vulnerable to floods and storms and harmed many types of aquatic life. Rapid climate change has compounded these effects through <a href="https://theconversation.com/ocean-warming-has-fisheries-on-the-move-helping-some-but-hurting-more-116248" target="_blank">rising global temperatures</a>, more <a href="https://theconversation.com/more-frequent-and-intense-tropical-storms-mean-less-recovery-time-for-the-worlds-coastlines-123335" target="_blank">frequent and severe storms</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/as-climate-change-alters-the-oceans-what-will-happen-to-dungeness-crabs-61501" target="_blank">ocean acidification</a>.</p><p>In the late 1990s, local residents told two of us who are longtime students of seagrasses (Robert "JJ" Orth and Karen McGlathery) that they had spotted small patches of eelgrass in shallow waters off Virginia's eastern shore. For years the conventional view had been that seagrasses in this area had not recovered from the events of the 1930s because human activities had <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.aquabot.2005.07.007" target="_blank">made the area inhospitable for them</a>.</p><p>But studies showed that water quality in these coastal bays was <a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02782971" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">comparatively good</a>. This led us to explore a different explanation: Seeds from healthy seagrass populations elsewhere along the Atlantic coast simply weren't reaching these isolated bays. Seagrasses are underwater flowering plants, so seeds are among the main ways they reproduce and spread to new environments.</p>
Eelgrass beds were restored in four bays at the southern tip of Virginia's eastern shore on the Atlantic coast. David J. Wilcox/VIMS, CC BY-ND
Sowing a New Crop<p>From our <a href="https://doi.org/10.2307/1941597" target="_blank">earlier research</a>, we knew that when eelgrass seeds fall from the parent plant, they sink to the sea bottom quickly and don't move far from where they land. We also knew that these seeds don't germinate until late fall or early winter. This meant that if we collected the seeds in spring, when eelgrass flowers, we could hold them until the fall, helping them survive over the months in between.</p><p>We decided to try reseeding eelgrass in the areas where they were missing. Starting in 1999, we collected seeds by hand from underwater meadows in nearby Chesapeake Bay – plucking the long reproductive shoots, bringing them back to our laboratory and holding them in large outdoor seawater tanks until they released their seeds naturally. After about 10 years we started gathering the grasses using a custom-built underwater "lawn mower" to collect many more of the reproductive shoots than we could by hand.</p><p>In 2001 we sowed our first round by simply tossing seeds from a boat. Our first test plots covered 28 acres of mud flats in waters 2 to 3 feet deep. Returning the following year, we saw new seedlings sprouting up.</p><p>Each year since then, the <a href="https://www.vims.edu/" target="_blank">Virginia Institute of Marine Science</a> and the <a href="https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/virginia/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Nature Conservancy's Virginia Coast Reserve</a>, along with staff and students from the <a href="https://www.vcrlter.virginia.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">University of Virginia</a>, have led a team of scientists and citizens to collect and seed a combined 536 acres of bare bottom in several coastal bays.</p><p>These initial plots took off and rapidly expanded. By 2020 they covered 9,600 acres across four bays. Several factors helped them flourish. These bays are naturally flushed with cool, clean water from the Atlantic Ocean. And they lie off the tip of Virginia's eastern shore, where there is little coastal development.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a482c2146febd6782c99960c2b55feb8"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/K9NyfPLINtk?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Sheltering Marine Life and Storing Carbon<p>Since eelgrass disappeared from these bays in the 1930s, human understanding of seagrass ecosystems has evolved. Today people don't pack their walls full of seagrass insulation but instead value different services they provide, such as habitat for fish and shellfish – including many <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12645" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">commercially and recreationally important species</a>.</p><p>Scientists and government agencies also have recognized the importance of coastal systems in capturing and storing so-called "<a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/bluecarbon.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">blue carbon</a>." In fact, we now know that seagrasses constitute a globally significant <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1477" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">carbon sink</a>. They are a key tool for reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-64094-1" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slowing climate change</a></p><p>We are working to understand the valuable services that our restored seagrass beds provide. To our surprise, fish and invertebrates returned within only a few years as the meadows expanded. These organisms have established extensive food webs that include species ranging from tiny seahorses to 6-foot-long sandbar sharks.<br></p><p>Other benefits were equally dramatic. Water in the bays become clearer as the seagrass canopy trapped floating particles and deposited them onto the bottom, burying significant stocks of carbon and nitrogen in sediments bound by the grasses' roots. Our research is the first to verify the overall net carbon captured by seagrass, and is now being used to issue carbon offset credits that in turn <a href="https://vaseagrant.org/eelgrass-carbon-credits/" target="_blank">create more funds for restoration</a>.</p><p>One big question was whether restoring seagrasses could make it possible to bring back bay scallops, which once generated millions of dollars for the local economy. Since bay scallops no longer existed in Virginia, we obtained broodstock from North Carolina, which we have <a href="https://chesapeakebaymagazine.com/return-of-the-bay-scallop/" target="_blank">reared and released annually</a> since 2013. Regular surveys now reveal a growing population of bay scallops in the restored eelgrass, although there is still some way to go before they reach levels seen in the 1930s.</p>
Restored seagrass beds (dark areas) along Virginia's Atlantic coast, with sunlight reflecting from a small island. Jonathan Lefcheck, CC BY-ND
A Model for Coastal Restoration<p>Repairing damaged ecosystems is such an urgent mission worldwide that the United Nations has designated 2021-2030 as the <a href="https://www.decadeonrestoration.org/" target="_blank">U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration</a>. We see the success we have achieved with eelgrass restoration as a prime model for similar efforts in coastal areas around the world.</p><p>Our project focused not only on reviving this essential habitat, but also on charting how restoring seagrasses affected the ecosystem and on the co-restoration of bay scallops. It provides a road map for involving scholars, nonprofits organizations, citizens and government agencies in an ecological mission where they can see the results of their work.</p><p>Recent assessments show that the restored zone only covers about 30% of the total habitable bottom in our project area. With continued support, eelgrass – and the many benefits it provides – may continue to thrive and expand well into the 21st century.</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Jessica Corbett
Leaders of climate and conservation groups on Tuesday welcomed House Democrats' introduction of landmark legislation that aims to address the ocean impacts of human-caused global heating and reform federal ocean management—recognizing that, as Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva put it, "a healthy ocean is key to fighting the climate crisis."
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By Julia Conley
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<div id="f47ab" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="381daa45528adda7398d5628d047294f"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1318175677724676096" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">There's a lot of competition for Vilest Policy Ever, but slashing food stamps during a pandemic that's causing mass… https://t.co/EYvb0C8Q3m</div> — Tamar Haspel (@Tamar Haspel)<a href="https://twitter.com/TamarHaspel/statuses/1318175677724676096">1603112546.0</a></blockquote></div>
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