A federal judge on Friday said he would not stop the US Forest Service from transferring government-owned land in Arizona to Rio Tinto Plc for its Resolution Copper project, denying a request from Native Americans who said the land has religious and cultural import.
The judge’s decision is likely to escalate the clash between members of Arizona’s San Carlos Apache Tribe, who consider the land home to deities, and Rio and minority partner BHP Group Plc , which has spent more than $1 billion on the project without producing any copper, the red metal used to make electric vehicles and other electronics devices.
The ruling means the land transfer can now take place by mid-March under a timeline approved by Congress and then-President Barack Obama in 2014.
US District Judge Steven Logan, an Obama appointee, said the group of Native Americans who brought the suit lacked standing and that the government has the right to give the land to whomever it chooses.
Tribal members claimed the US government has illegally occupied the land for more than 160 years, but Logan sided with government attorneys by finding that Washington gained the land in an 1848 treaty with Mexico.
“This court … finds no evidence that the United States ever forfeited that title or that Congress intended the government to hold the land in trust” for Native Americans, Logan said in his 23-page ruling.
Logan’s ruling can be appealed.
Representatives for the tribe, Rio Tinto, the US Forest Service and Apache Stronghold – the nonprofit group of Native Americans that brought the lawsuit – were not immediately available for comment.
BHP declined to comment.
Some Native Americans work for and support the Resolution project, though many others have vowed to oppose it forcefully.
Logan last month declined to block the publication of an environmental study that started the 60-day countdown for the land swap.
(By Ernest Scheyder; Editing by Chris Reese and David Gregorio)