Oak Flat is a sacred site in the homeland of the Apache Nation who know it as Chi’chil Biłdagoteel. It is also held sacred by Zuni, Yavapai, O’odham and Hopi people . For centuries, people have visited Chi’chil Bildagoteel to hold ceremonies and to collect acorns and medicinal plants . The area contains hundreds of petroglyphs, historic sites, and sacred springs . The Apache have never lost their relationship with Chi’chil Bildagoteel, although during some of their history the U.S. government has not allowed them to use the land .
The ceremonial grounds of Chi’chil Bildagoteel are threatened by the Resolution Copper Mine, a joint venture owned by Rio Tinto and BHP. The copper deposit is estimated to be the largest in North America, producing up to 25% of projected US demands . Demand for copper is expected to rise as the energy industry transitions away from fossil fuels, and the auto industry begins manufacturing more electric vehicles .
Oak Flat is owned by the U.S. Forest Service, and was protected from mining in the 1950s, when it was listed as a Traditional Cultural Property on the National Register of Historic Places. The Resolution Copper mine was proposed in 2004, and in the following eight years more than a dozen congressional bills were proposed to transfer ownership of Oak Flat to Resolution Copper. Finally, in 2014 a rider transferring ownership of Oak Flat to the mining company was attached to the must-pass 2015 Defense Appropriations Act minutes before it was voted on in congress . This last-minute provision granted 2,422 acres of the Tonto National Forest including the Oak Flat area to Resolution Copper in exchange for 5,344 acres of private land. A draft EIA for the project released in August 2019 detailed environmental, social and economic consequences so complex that it took the Forest Service more than 1,300 pages to lay them out . The final EIA was released in January 2020, and the Trump administration approved the land swap. The non-profit Apache Stronghold filed a lawsuit contesting the land swap in 2019, and the incoming Biden administration withdrew the EIA in March 2020 for further evaluation .
In 2021 President Biden’s Department of Justice argued in favor of the land swap during court proceedings. Ruling on the case is expected in 2022. The Department of Justice argued in a legal brief that the protection of Oak Flat would require an act of Congress . Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva has introduced the Save Oak Flat Act at least four times .
The Apache have established an encampment to protect Oak Flat with four crosses representing the entire surrounding sacred area, including its water, animals, oak trees, and other plants central to the tribal identity . Apache Stronghold has led a multi-pronged effort with allies employing political, grassroots, artistic, nonprofit and media strategies  Regional Indigenous people have marched at least six times to protest the land swap. The Apache Stronghold camp has been targeted by vandals: on March 17, 2018, the four sacred crosses were ripped from the ground or destroyed .
The Resolution Copper deposit is more than 1,300 meters beneath the surface, and the company proposes to use block-caving to extract the ore: tunnels would be constructed beneath the surface, the ore is withdrawn, and the area above the deposit would collapse into a subsidence about 1.8 miles (3 km) long and 800-1115 feet (245-340 m) deep. The crushed ore would be hauled halfway to the surface — about 1,050 meters up (3,500 feet) — and shipped to a processing plant by conveyor. The EIA projects that Chi’chil Bildagoteel would be, “directly and permanently damaged” by the subsidence . Tailings from the mine would occupy 2,000 to 6,000 acres (depending on the selected alternative for the tailings facility). The draft EIA states that between 14 and 16 sacred springs would be impacted by the loss of groundwater,  although other studies place the number at forty-six . Burial sites are also likely to be impacted .
The EIA projects that the mine would consume more than 500,000 acre-feet (600,000,000 m3) of water from the Colorado River and from precious groundwater supplies, changing the flow of surrounding rivers and springs; mining waste could contaminate groundwater and streams . The EIA also projects strains on municipal services in the nearby town of Superior and increases housing costs . The mining would disturb the habitats of endangered species like the Western yellow-billed cuckoo and the Southwestern willow flycatcher .