Superior Town Council to seek more data before taking position on Oak Flat land swap reversal

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Whether the Superior Town Council should take sides in an effort to undo a land swap between Resolution Copper and the San Carlos Apache Tribe approved by Congress last December has been put off until the Council collects more information on the issue.

To gather that data, the Council took up an offer made by Terry Rambler, chairman on the San Carlos Apache Tribe, to have Councilman John Tameron join a tribal delegation visiting Washington on Nov. 2 to promote reversal of the land swap. It was specified that Tameron would only be an observer and would not take part in any discussions between tribal representatives and U.S. government officials or elected representatives.

Tameron made a report on what he learned during the Washington trip at the Nov. 12 Council meeting. Tribal Chairman Rambler also was scheduled to speak on the issue before the Council but was unable to appear due to a scheduling conflict. It is hoped Rambler can reschedule for the next Council meeting on Dec. 9.

Despite the Congressional action last December, the San Carlos Apache Tribe remains opposed to the land swap, under which 2,400 acres of land amid the Tonto National Forest including Oak Flat, which the Tribe holds to be sacred ground, to Resolution Copper. In return, Resolution gives the U.S. Forest Service 5,300 acres of private parcels the company owns in the area.

This action has been controversial as the land swap was slipped into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2014 by Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake shortly before this must-pass military spending bill came up for a vote before Congressional adjournment for the year. Critics argue that like all last-minute riders, the land swap received little scrutiny by elected representatives eager to go home for the Christmas holidays, so a correction is due.

Sen. McCain backed the land swap, claiming it would create thousands of jobs that would boost the economy around Superior and other area communities.

Legislation (H.R. 2811) to repeal the land swap was introduced last June by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ). The measure, currently awaiting hearings in the House Natural Resources Committee, has picked up 39 co-sponsors, although Rep. Ruben Gallego is the only additional one from Arizona. Nearly all Arizona representatives voted for the full measure last year.

Councilman Tameron reported on how he spent the day with the Apache delegation visiting assorted government officials and elected representatives. He noted how at each stop the delegation emphasized that the Oak Flat site in the middle of the land swap area was an Apache holy place where ceremonies, including coming-of-age rites, have been performed since before recorded history, and for food and medicinal gathering. Also in the area are Apache burial grounds.

Among those visited by the tribal delegation were Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico; Rep. William Lacey Clay from Missouri; Betsy Lin, chief of staff to Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii; and Arthur (Butch) Blazer, undersecretary for National Resources and Environment with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The most productive visit was to the offices of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who three days later introduced a Senate version of Rep. Grijalva’s bill. That measure (S 2242) was assigned to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

At the end of the day, Tameron attended a Save Oak Flats forum conducted by representatives of several Native American tribes at which questions were answered and opinions stated. At the end of the 2.5 hour event, the tribes presented a petition with more than 1 million signatures asking that the land exchange be overturned.

Contributing to the debate, Mayor Jayme Valenzuela read an op-ed published in 2008 by the Arizona Republic by Kathy Kitcheyan, former chairwoman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, arguing against letting Resolution Copper mine on Oak Flats, citing that the land was sacred to the tribe. Her eloquent prose explained what the land meant to the tribe and why it should be preserved.

However, it was noted that since then Kitcheyan has changed her position, recently saying in Facebook posts that Oak Flat meant nothing to the tribe and that no ceremonies were held on the land until 2012 for political purposes.

Mayor Valenzuela suggested that Kitcheyan also be invited to the Dec. 9 Council Meeting to clarify her change of opinion.

Another proposal was made that Resolution Copper be invited to the same meeting to present its side of the land swap repeal legislation.

That the Council was still trying to form an opinion on the land swap did not sit well with all Council members. Councilman Gilbert Aguilar wondered that as it took five years for Resolution Copper to gain permission to mine Oak Flat, would Superior now have to wait another five years for the Oak Flat issue to be settled.

Some citizens during the meeting’s public comments section agreed with Aguilar, stating that Superior needs the jobs Resolution Copper will create sooner rather than later. But a few citizens also backed the Apache Tribe, noting that the proposed mining operation would harm the local environment.

In other business at the Council Meeting, Town Manager Margaret Gaston reported that Superior has amassed a $270,000 budget that with enable the replacement of all street signs that will make it easier for motorists to maneuver around town.

Council members voted 6-0 to change the name of Mary Drive and Sunset Drive near offices of the Superior School District to Panther Drive in honor of the local sports team. Resolution 15-557 was passed as an emergency measure so the name change can be made immediately. It was noted that fewer than six residences will be affected by the change.

Several area road projects also were announced by Bill Harmon, district engineer with the Southeast Engineering and Maintenance District of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).

The biggest project will be to widen to four lanes U.S. Route 60 from Silver King to Superior at a cost of $32.9 million). The project makes accommodation for medium openings for a new Circle K gasoline/retail facility, and Harmon said he’d also consider requests by other local businesses for similar accommodations. This project will be completed by 2017, though Harmon said he is working to get it done sooner.

Harmon also said ADOT will widen and add passing lanes on U.S. 60 from Oak Flat to Miami at a cost of $8.8 million; and a project to mitigate rock falling along U.S. 60.

Future projects ADOT is considering include adding lights to the Queen Creek Tunnel on U.S. 60, rock fall mitigation along State Route 77, and a pavement preservation job along State Route 177, Harmon said.

James Hodl (101 Posts)

James J. Hodl is a career journalist who has worked for newspapers, magazines and trade journals. A graduate of Southern Illinois University with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, Hodl began his career as a reporter with the Palatine (IL) Herald and the Morton Grove (IL) Review before becoming editor of the trade publication Appliance Service News. In recent years, Hodl has had articles published in Consumers Digest, Good Housekeeping, Home Remodeling, Kitchens & Baths and Salute; and has contributed to trade publications serving the home furnishings, restaurant and casino markets. A native of Chicago, Hodl relocated to San Tan Valley in 2013.


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