WASHINGTON - Opponents of a proposed copper mine at the Oak Flat campground scored a point when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places this month - but while they won the battle, they haven't won the war.
While Rep. Paul Gosar, (R-Prescott), said in a prepared statement that the designation is aimed at "sabotaging an important mining effort," a National Register official said that the listing is a "label that yes, it (Oak Flat) is in fact a historic resource," but it doesn't necessarily prevent mining at the site.
Paul Lusignan, a historian for the National Register, said the mine's owners, Resolution Copper, would have had to determine whether the site had historical significance as part of the National Environmental Policy Act review of the project.
The government's March 4 determination that Oak Flat is historic removes that step from NEPA, he said, but adds another layer of review because there are now historic resources that must be taken into account.
"Before a federal agency can take any actions, they have to evaluate effects on any property listed on the National Register or eligible for it," he said.
The historic resources at Oak Flat include sites that the San Carlos Apache consider sacred, said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former chairman of the San Carlos Apache tribe and a member of the group Apache Stronghold, which has been fighting the mine.
Nosie acknowledged that the historic listing for the site - identified by the National Register as the Chi'chil Bildagoteel Historic District - will not stop the mine, but he welcomed it as a validation of his group's claims."
"To the rest of Congress and the rest of the doubters, it proves that this place is unique for a lot of reasons," Nosie said. "We know it's not a victory, we know it's a stepping stone for us to step up."
Nosie said he hopes the listing will bring national attention to the issue and boost support for bills in the House and Senate to reverse the land exchange that cleared the way for the Resolution Copper project.
After years of failing to pass the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, the House and Senate slipped the language through in December 2014 as an amendment to a defense funding bill.
The act calls for the government to give about 2,400 acres of copper-rich federally owned land, including Oak Flat, to Resolution Copper in exchange for another 5,000 acres of land owned by the company in Southeast Arizona.
The mining company has said the move will create thousands of jobs in southeast Arizona and would add billions of dollars to the state's economy over its proposed 60-year lifespan. But critics have charged that it would damage environmental and historic sites in the process.
Calls seeking comment from Resolution Copper on the historic designation were not immediately returned. But Gosar made no secret of his opinion in a statement released last week.
"Oak Flat has never been a sacred site, as confirmed by the local tribe's own former historian," he said, referring to an opinion written by San Carlos Apache Dale Miles.
"Yet, Obama's minions are hell-bent on sabotaging an important mining effort by listing a small, public campground 20 miles away from the nearest tribe's reservation as a historic site," Gosar's statement said.
Nosie called Gosar's statements attacks on his tribe's spirituality.
Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, said the historic listing is "embarrassing" for mine supporters because it undermines their argument that the site has no spiritual significance.
"Most importantly, it confirms the central sacred importance to the Apache," Silver said. "Their (opponents') whole thing is it's not important to the Apache, it's fake - well it's not."
Nosie said he hopes the attention can boost support for bills by Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, that would reverse the land-exchange deal.
Neither Grijalva's bill, introduced in June, nor Sanders', which was introduced in November, has received a hearing yet. But Jane Sanders, wife of the Democratic presidential hopeful, assured tribal leaders during a visit to Oak Flat on Sunday that she and her husband would continue to fight to conserve the land.