USDA puts brakes on land transfer for Arizona copper mine

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Naelyn Pike, who is Chiricahua Apache, leads a prayer outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. She's part of the group Apache Stronghold that is asking a federal judge to keep the U.S. Forest Service from turning over a parcel of land that Apaches consider sacred to a copper mining company. (AP Photo/Cheyanne Mumphrey)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – The Biden administration is pulling back an environmental review that had cleared the way for a parcel of federal land held sacred by Apaches to be turned over for a massive copper mine in eastern Arizona.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Monday that it likely will take several months to further consult with Native American tribes and others about their concerns over Oak Flat and determine whether the environmental review fully complies with the law.

The agency cited President Joe Biden's recent memo on strengthening relationships with tribal nations, and regularly consulting with them in a meaningful way.

The USDA and the U.S. Forest Service acknowledged they can only do so much. Congress mandated that the land be transferred to Resolution Copper no later than 60 days after the final environmental review was published. The document was released in the last days of Donald Trump's administration.

Michael Nixon, an attorney for the Apache Stronghold group that filed tthe first of three lawsuits seeking to stop the land exchange, said the USDA's decision is welcome but doesn't have much impact without intervention from the courts or Congress.

“Oak Flat is still on death row,” he said. “Essentially, they're just changing the execution date.”

Dan Blondeau, a spokesman for Resolution Copper, said the company is evaluating the decision.

The parcel of land in the Tonto National Forest east of Phoenix was set to be transferred to Resolution Copper by mid-March for one of the largest copper mines in the U.S. At least three pending lawsuits have raised concerns over religious freedom rights, land ownership and violations of federal law.