WASHINGTON — In 1955, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower signed an executive order that put a huge swath of rugged Arizona plateau off-limits to all future mining, a bow to recreationists and to American Indians who regard the site as sacred.
Fifty-six years later, Republicans in the House of Representatives have another idea in mind: As part of a swap, they want to give the Oak Flat region — a 2,400-acre chunk of national forest about 70 miles southeast of Phoenix — to a copper company, which is promising to invest $6 billion to open up the third-largest undeveloped copper-mining field in the world.
While environmentalist groups and other critics express alarm, key backers of the project say it could become a national model for creating jobs, 3,700 in this case.
On Friday, when the Labor Department reported a national unemployment rate of 9 percent in October, Republican U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, cited the project as an example of a plan "that responsibly utilizes America's vast natural resources for economic growth."
Following the lead of Hastings' panel, the House voted last week to approve the swap, which will require Resolution Copper Co. to give more than 5,000 acres it owns in Arizona to the federal government.
Freshman Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona, the bill's chief House sponsor, said the project was a model for showing what could be done "when all stakeholders come to the table and the government gets out of the way of private industry."
While opponents have battled the plan successfully since 2005, this marks the furthest it has advanced on Capitol Hill.
The legislation, called the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act, now moves to the Senate, where the state's Republicans, John McCain and Jon Kyl, vow to do whatever they can to get it passed. In a joint statement, the senators called the plan a "real jobs bill," adding, "Arizonans can't wait."
Archaeology groups and Indian tribes in Arizona oppose the plan, fearing that it will be too disruptive to the environment. Officials in the Obama administration have joined the opponents, saying the project needs more study and that the company needs to consult more with local tribes.
At a House subcommittee hearing earlier this year, Shan Lewis, the president of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, called the plan "offensive to us, and to the rest of the country."
The Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club launched a campaign against the project, saying Oak Flat is a prime spot for hiking, camping and rock climbing and a great place to see declining bird species such as the black-chinned sparrow and Costa's hummingbird.
Members of Congress from Western states have pushed the copper-mining project particularly hard. The Congressional Western Caucus, which includes Hastings and Gosar, and the Senate Western Caucus, which includes McCain and Kyl, included the project in their new "jobs frontier" report. The report criticizes the Obama administration as not doing enough to develop American minerals, saying the "inaction is unacceptable."
In addition to creating jobs, Hastings and other supporters said, the project would improve national security. They note that imports now account for 30 percent of the nation's copper, which is used for everything from stealth bombers to nuclear submarines.
Hastings said the project was "a perfect example of how safely and responsibly harnessing our resources will generate revenue and get our economy on track." He said the project would have an economic impact of more than $60 billion, raising $20 billion in federal, state, county and local taxes.
"The importance of U.S. copper production cannot be overstated," Hastings said.
While the project has plenty of support in the Arizona congressional delegation, the state's Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, who's also on the House Natural Resources Committee, opposes it, calling it "a triple threat." He charged that proponents of the plan want to give "sacred public land" to mining developers who'll convert it into billions of dollars of profit.
"It will rob native people of their heritage, it will rob local people of their water and it will rob the American people of their money," he said in a speech on the House floor.
Hastings said taxpayers would be protected because the federal land would be assessed at full market value for the land and the minerals. In addition, he said, the company would be required to pay the federal government more if the copper production exceeds the appraised value.
One of the project's biggest backers, Superior, Ariz., Mayor Michael Hing, said it represented "an unprecedented opportunity" to improve the local economy. He said many town residents were forced to commute to Phoenix and other nearby towns for employment.
"Our economic future is at stake," Hing told the House Natural Resources Committee's Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands at a hearing in June.
At the same hearing, Lewis, who's also the vice chairman of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, told a story of how the Apache people call Oak Flat "Chich'il Bildagoteel" which means "a flat with acorn trees."
"Since time immemorial," he said, the site has played a crucial role for Apache religious, traditional and cultural practices. He expressed fear that the mine would result in "the collapse of the earth," forever damaging the landscape.
"No one should attempt to — nor can they — put a price on the value of an intact and healthy ecosystem within the Oak Flat area or its adjacent lands, or on safe drinking water, or the protection of spiritual, religious, cultural and archaeological values," Lewis said.
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