A 2,422 acre exchange of National Forest land in Arizona–now being debated in a U.S. House Subcommittee-is crucial to the development of the third largest underground copper deposit in the world, held by a joint venture of Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton.

Superior, Arizona-headquartered Resolution Copper plans to invest more than US$6 billion in a copper project that would produce 25% of U.S. copper demand for more than four decades.

House Resolution 1904, known as the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act of 2011 would transfer 2,422 acres of National Forest land into the ownership of Resolution Copper. Simultaneously, Resolution Copper would transfer 5,300 acres in eight different privately held land parcels to the government.

“The goal of the land exchange is quite simple,” Jon Cherry, Resolution vice president, told the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Tuesday. “It consolidates our ownership of the land where we will be developing and operating the mine.”

“As the map shows, the current fragmented land ownership pattern between Resolution Copper and the Forest Service is a logistical and regulatory jumble,” he added.

Cherry estimated the mine will generate more than 3,700 jobs related to mining, and provide an additional $19 billion in federal, state and local taxes over the life of the project. “Copper, the metal that will be produced from this mine, is the fundamental building block for the new green economy including hybrid and electric cars, solar panels, wind turbines and smart grids,” he added.

Pinal County Supervisor Bryan Martyn told the subcommittee, “Pinal County and Arizona have a potential windfall in our backyard that will offer much needed job and economic opportunities.”

“Pinal County has a nearly 15% unemployment rate. The unemployment rate on our Indian reservations is more than triple that number,” Martyn said. “The Resolution Copper project will put over 1,400 people into high-paying jobs. These jobs have the potential to create more than $40 billion in economic activity.”

Martyn also noted the bill “brings over 5,000 acres of unique and valuable conservation properties into public ownership.”

Superior, Arizona, Mayor Michael O. King told the committee that if Resolution Copper is able to expeditiously re-open and deepen the old Magma Mine, it will be a major step forward for a community with a 12% unemployment rate and many residents who possess mining experience.

“The lack of stable local employment has taken its toll on us,” King observed. “Families that have resided here for generations are moving away.”

He also noted that the four-square mile town would be able to acquire adjacent lands through the land exchange of H.R. 1904. “The lands Superior will acquire through the exchange are crucial to attracting new development and will provide significant opportunities for us.”

However, the associate chief of the U.S. Forest Service and the deputy director of the Bureau of Land Management both testified they oppose the bill as written. The Forest Service believes the bill should require the preparation of an environmental impact statement before the land exchange is completed.

The BLM expressed concerns about the timing of consultations with interested Indian Tribes, the timing of the exchange, appraisal provisions, and value adjustment provisions.

Shan Lewis, president of the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, argued the land transfer is in essence a land transfer to a foreign government, citing Rio Tinto’s ties  to Chinalco. Lewis also suggested transfer of the lands to Rio Tinto for mining purposes will deplete and contaminate water resources from nearby watersheds and aquifers.

He also argued powerful Mountain Spirits with whom the Oak Flat area is associated will lose their power, harming the Apache people, as well as adversely impact the power of plants used for religious, medicinal and other purposes.

However, Harrison Talgo, an elder and member of the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council, told the subcommittee, “I believe traditional Apache values are not mutually exclusive with economic development.”

“Many Apaches worked at the former Magma Mine that is the base area for the new mine,” he suggested. “The issue today is not about our reservation land, our sovereignty, our heritage, our self respect-these are not for sale. This is about putting our people-a lot of people-to work.”

Nonetheless, Roger Featherstone, director of the Arizona Mining Reform Coalition, told the subcommittee that other versions of HR 1904 have been introduced in Congress since 2005. “Previous Congresses have recognized that this exchange is simply not in the best interest of the American public.”

He asserted that the bill is “wholly inadequate to protect the important values” of a unique area that is a “world-class natural resource for birding, hunting, hiking, camping, rock climbing bouldering, canyoneering, picnicking, responsible off-highway vehicle driving, and other recreational uses.”

“In fact the bill contains no provisions for meaningful environmental or cultural review or public input,” Featherstone argued. “Furthermore, Rio Tinto would not even be required to file a mining plan for years…”

“This special interest legislation, which would benefit two foreign mining companies at the expense of the American public, is not needed. Rio Tinto should stick with the process all other mines go through and write its mining plan of operation first,” he concluded.