A landscape has as many layers of potential use as it does layers of geological strata, and often the only time we as a society question the value of a landscape is when it is under the threat of exploitation. When these threats bubble up the many cultures connected to the landscape are pushed to conceptualize the importance of preservation. Oak Flat, Arizona, which is located an hour east of Phoenix, is just such a landscape, layered with spiritual, recreational, and commercial possibilities.
The first mining claim on the current day Oak Flat was staked in 1875, and since the area has been in a consistent flow of financial boon and bust. Over the past 140 years Oak Flat has been dramatically altered by the presence of a shaft mining operations, which have long helped to economically sustain the small town of Superior, located 6 miles west.
Resolution Copper Company, which is a foreign owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto, has proposed to create an open pit mine to tap the rich copper vein that lays more than 7,000 feet deep under Oak Flat. Since 2005, 12 land exchange bills have been introduced in the United States Congress and up till now all have failed. This record of failure has not swayed Resolution’s interest in future exploitation of the area. Resolution has repeatedly pressured members of the Arizona Congressional delegation to continue with new introductions of land exchange bills that would privatize Oak Flat campground and surrounding public land. In March of 2016, President Barak Obama vetoed the latest land exchange bill put forth by a Republican led Congressional delegation.
President Eisenhower placed Oak Flat off limits to mining in 1955 because of the areas importance as a sacred ritual site for the San Carlos Apache tribe. Oak Flat is also a prime recreation area; especially for rock climbing with more than 2,500 established climbing routes. This is a landscape that is currently being used and maintained by environmentally aware users of both the San Carlos Apache tribe and the climbing based non-profit, the Access Fund.
The threat of a future passing land exchange of Oak Flat would allow mining companies to avoid following our nation’s environmental and cultural laws and would bypass the permit process all other mines in the country have followed. This attempted land grab has been the only bill presented to the United States Congress that would privatize a Native American sacred site on public land. On top of the cultural loss to the San Carlos Apache, the possible future land exchange would mean the largest loss of rock climbing on public lands ever in American history.
Oak Flat has played an important role in my life in Arizona. My personal experiences around Oak Flat are also a layer of experience. I spend as much of my free time as possible climbing around Oak Flat. It was the first physical landscape in Arizona that I felt I knew. My experiences in Oak Flat have helped me manage my stress in life. The future of this land is unknown, but my experiences are a testament to the value of open and accessible Western landscapes.