In Last Rush, Trump Grants Mining and Energy Firms Access to Public Lands


WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is rushing to approve a final wave of large-scale mining and energy projects on federal lands, encouraged by investors who want to try to ensure the projects move ahead even after President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. takes office.

In Arizona, the Forest Service is preparing to sign off on the transfer of federal forest land — considered sacred by a neighboring Native American tribe — to allow construction of one of the nation’s largest copper mines.

In Utah, the Interior Department may grant final approval as soon as next week to a team of energy speculators targeting a remote spot inside an iconic national wilderness area — where new energy leasing is currently banned — so they can start drilling into what they believe is a huge underground supply of helium.

In northern Nevada, the department is close to granting final approval to construct a sprawling open-pit lithium mine on federal land that sits above a prehistoric volcano site.

And in the East, the Forest Service intends to take a key step next month toward allowing a natural gas pipeline to be built through the Jefferson National Forest in Virginia and West Virginia, at one point running underneath the Appalachian Trail.

These projects, and others awaiting action in the remaining weeks of the Trump administration, reflect the intense push by the Interior Department, which controls 480 million acres of public lands, and the Forest Service, which manages another 193 million acres, to find ways to increase domestic energy and mining production, even in the face of intense protests by environmentalists and other activists.

When he takes office on Jan. 20, Mr. Biden, who has chosen a Native American — Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico — to lead the Interior Department, will still have the ability to reshape, slow or even block certain projects.

Some, like the South Dakota uranium mine, will require further approvals, or face lawsuits seeking to stop them, like the planned helium drilling project in Utah. But others, like the lithium mine in Nevada, will have the final federal permit needed before construction can begin, and will be hard for the next administration to stop.

Whether they are the final word or not, the last-minute actions are just the latest evidence of how the far-reaching shift in regulatory policy under Mr. Trump has altered the balance between environmental concerns and business, giving substantial new weight to corporate interests.

“This is a disaster,” said Wendsler Nosie Sr., a former San Carlos Apache tribal leader who in recent weeks has been camping out at the proposed mine site inside the Tonto National Forest to protest the pending decision.

Backers of these projects say they are committed to minimizing the effect on public lands, sacred Native American sites and wildlife.

The Oglala Lakota Nation, whose 2.8 million-acre reservation is adjacent to the proposed uranium mine, has sued to block the project. The mine would be built on property that the Sioux tribe has long claimed was illegally taken by the United States.

“The voice of Indigenous people needs to be heard — and federal Indian policy has made us invisible and dehumanized us,” said Kyle White, 34, a member of the Lakota tribe and its former director of its natural resources regulatory agency.

A small piece of the project is on Interior Department land. The department has not yet approved the mine and will not act until after Mr. Trump leaves office, one of several ways that the Biden administration could slow or block the project.

Azarga Uranium, the Canada-based backer of the project, did not respond to a request for comment.

For the proposed Resolution Copper Mine, east of Phoenix in the Tonto National Forest, adjacent to Apache tribal land, the Forest Service is expected to issue its long-awaited final environmental assessment by mid-January.

Sixty days after the assessment is released, a 2,422-acre chunk of the Tonto forest, an area called Oak Flat, will automatically be transferred to the mining companies in exchange for land nearby, a deal mandated by Congress in 2014.

The Interior Department’s own National Register of Historic Places lists the Oak Flat area as “a holy place and ancestral homeland to the Western Apache Indians” that is also “a venue for ongoing Apache participation in traditional social activities, and is associated with traditions rooted in the history” of the tribe.

The project would create 3,700 jobs and supply as much as one billion pounds of copper per year, a quarter of the current annual demand in the United States.

“That was one of the major reasons why President Trump moved so aggressively to reduce the red tape involved in such projects,” Mr. Ross said, in remarks during his visit to the site in October.

The companies running the project — Rio Tinto and BHP, also based in Australia — have promised to build a campsite outside the mine area to replace one traditionally used by Native Americans in the Oak Flat area. Rio Tinto said it was also working to ensure there was no damage to a nearby area called Apache Leap, where according to tribal legends, Native Americans being chased by U.S. Cavalry troops in the late-1800s jumped to their deaths.

But the ire of some members of the local San Carlos Apache Tribe toward Rio Tinto only intensified after the company admitted using dynamite to destroy a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia as it expanded an iron ore mine.

A Forest Service employee working on the Arizona project acknowledged to community leaders in a recent conference call that pressure to get the evaluation of the project done quickly was “coming from the highest level,” mentioning the Agriculture Department, which oversees the service.

Federal records show that the environmental study until recently was expected to continue until the middle of 2021. It is now slated to be finished by mid-January. An agency spokeswoman did not respond when asked to comment on claims that the process was being rushed. But Andrew Lye, the project manager for Resolution Copper, said the review had actually taken longer than expected and been very thorough.

“It is not being fast-tracked and Resolution Copper has not sought to apply for programs that are available to expedite projects,” Mr. Lye said.

Opponents of the projectsare keeping up pressure to try to stop them. That includes Mr. Nosie, who is camping out most nights on the sacred Oak Flat that could soon be transferred to Rio Tinto.

“As far as I am concerned, this is an invasion by a foreign power,” Mr. Nosie said. “We cannot afford to lose our identity and our history. Imagine if the biblical Mount Sinai became a location for mining and it caved in and disappeared. You would not stand by and watch.”

Lisa Friedman contributed reporting.

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