In December 2014, US Congress approved and the President signed into law a land exchange between Resolution Copper Mining (Resolution Copper) and the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service), Tonto National Forest, which will allow Resolution Copper to access the largest copper deposit discovered in North America – but not without controversy.
In order to strategically plan and bring a project to full potential, many mining companies seek to acquire certain properties that are currently in federal control through a federal land exchange process. A land exchange between a federal agency and private entity typically takes one of two paths: (1) an administrative land exchange; or (2) a congressional land exchange. Administrative land exchanges are voluntary real estate transactions at the sole discretion of the federal agency. Due to the complexities associated with administrative land exchanges, many proponents of land exchanges seek a congressionally approved land exchange. Through a Congressional land exchange, Congress can authorize or direct a federal agency to initiate a land exchange, or override the administrative process to expedite the land exchange.
The Resolution Copper land exchange is a congressional land exchange and involves 2,400 acres of National Forest System lands, including 760 acres of federal lands that were previously excluded from mining by a federal law signed by President Eisenhower in 1955 (Oak Flat Withdrawal Area) as well as areas sacred to Native American Tribes. In exchange for these lands, the Forest Service will receive 5,300 acres of land within the State of Arizona (owned by Resolution Copper) that offers recreational, conservation, and cultural significance. In this exchange, Congress directs the Forest Service to initiate the exchange and conduct comprehensive environmental review under the National Environmental Policy Act, which will involve significant public involvement and consultation with Native American Tribes.
Iterations of this land exchange had been proposed by Resolution Copper for the past ten years. Opposition calls the exchange a “land grab” and claims that the land exchange was approved only because it was part and parcel of the National Defense Authorization Act, which had little chance of being rejected by Congress. Supporters, however, hail the economic benefits of the land exchange—Resolution Copper estimates the creation of 3,700 jobs and $61 billion in economic benefits to the state.