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San Carlos Apache Tribe claims small victory in dispute over sacred land

The San Carlos Apache Tribe has been protesting at the Oak Flat campground for nearly two weeks in an attempt to protect land they deem sacred.

During that time the tribe has occupied a portion of the grounds to bring attention to a land swap between the federal government and Resolution Copper, which plans to break ground on a $61.4 million mining operation in mid-2020.

Protest organizers had previously told Cronkite News they planned to stay there for “however long it takes.”

But federal regulations state camping isn’t permitted for more than 14 days.

The tribe on Tuesday announced a small victory after Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth met with them to negotiate.

“We wanted to meet with them and say we need to work together to make sure good things come of this,” said Vernelda Grant, the director and tribal historic preservation officer for the San Carlos Apache Historic Preservation Archaeology Department. “We are occupying the place because of its spiritual significance.”

Tonto National Forest Service spokeswoman Carrie Templin said they can allow the group to stay beyond mandated two-week timeframe.

“We are looking at what our options are for the duration of their ceremonies,” she said.

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The federal government authorized the land transfer as a part of the National Defense and Authorization Act. Resolution Copper received 2,400 acres of copper- rich land in and around Oak Flat campground.

Grant said Bosworth was receptive of the tribe’s concerns about Resolution Copper’s plans.

“He supports meaningful face-to-face dialog about taking care of that place,” she said of the land. “We want to be able to work with the forest service, and we don’t want (Resolution Copper) to come in and start drilling during our ceremonies.”

Grant said the group hopes Resolution Copper will leave the land untouched.

“But there’s a danger there that they are desecrating something special that will never be replaced,” she said.

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Carina Dominguez/Cronkite News

The young and old participated in a 44-mile journey from the San Carlos Apache Tribe’s office to Oak Flat campground where some plan on occupying the area for 'as long as it takes,' organizer Vernelda Grant said.