Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Stewardship Challenges on Public Lands 

12-09-2015 17:35

February 16, 2008, marked the 25th anniversary of the Mt. Taylor Quadrathlon, a challenging competition in which several hundred participants run, bike, cross country ski, and snowshoe 42 miles to the top of the highest peak in the Cibola National Forest and back. For many Americans, the quadrathlon typifies the common image of the activities that occur on public lands—recreation and tourism.

Rising roughly 5,000 feet above the surrounding landscape to an elevation of 11,301 feet, Mt. Taylor is the highest peak in New Mexico’s San Mateo Mountains. It’s used for a variety of recreational activities— day hikes, backpacking, mountain biking, skiing, camping, fishing, and off-highway vehicle use. Historically, as with most forests managed by the U.S. Forest Service, Mt. Taylor served the logging industry from 1906 until World War II when commercial logging ended in the area. Grazing became common and was the principal use until uranium mining flourished in the 1950s. Then uranium prices plummeted in the 1980s and mining activity declined. This boom-and-bust economy is not unusual on the Western forests, which represent 80 percent of the 193 million acres managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

Mt. Taylor provides an excellent example of the stewardship challenges faced on public lands today. Its roughly 600 square miles, encompassing an eroded volcanic crater and a base of sandstone mesas capped by lava, are managed primarily by the U.S. Forest Service. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM),the United States in Trust for the Pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, the New Mexico State Land Office, the Pueblo of Acoma, and the Cebolleta Land Grant also have trust responsibilities for portions of Mt. Taylor. This checkerboard of ownership illustrates the awkwardness that exists in public land management in the western United States.

For example, in the 19th century, as a condition of acceptance into the union, Congress set aside lands in trust for states to generate income to support education. As part of that checkerboard, the New Mexico State Land Office manages 13 million mineral acres and 9 million surface acres, producing income (close to one half billion dollars per year) from extraction, agriculture, and development to support public schools and universities, hospitals, public buildings, correctional facilities, and water projects.

Native Cultural Connections to Mt. Taylor

Add to this intersection of recreation, tourism, grazing, timbering, mineral and energy development other competing values on public lands—such as the cultural relationships and uses by traditional communities that go back a millennium or more. Mt. Taylor received its current and common name in honor of President Zachary Taylor from a passing U.S. Army engineer mapping the topography of the territory in 1849.Prior to the U.S. military presence, the Spanish referred to the area as Cebolleta. And, from time immemorial, there have been other names for Mt. Taylor. The Pueblo of Acoma knows the mountain as Kaweshtima; for Hopi it is Tsiipiya; Laguna Pueblo calls it T’se pina; Zuni Pueblo uses Dewankwi Kyabachu Yalanne; and the Navajo Nation’s name for Mt. Taylor is Tsoodzil.

Archeological evidence indicates human occupation on Mt. Taylor as early as 5500 BC. There is also evidence of ancestral Puebloan occupations dating to AD 925 found across this landscape. Archeological surveys show the area has been in continual use for material acquisition for thousands of years. Analysis of wooden beams in the great houses in Chaco Canyon show that logs from Mt. Taylor were used in their construction, suggesting Mt. Taylor was part of the large Chacoan landscape and social geography.

In addition to the archeological records, Native American oral histories and practices reveal an ongoing relationship with the mountain by many tribes and pueblos of the southwest. Mt. Taylor is surrounded by Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, Hopi, Jicarilla Apache, and Navajo homelands and is of significance to these pueblos and tribes in maintaining their cultural identities, informing each tribe and pueblo of their origins and their distinctive community, and thereby guiding most aspects of their daily lives, behavior, and activities. For these and other tribes, the concept of landscape is about more than the physical elements of a snowcapped mountain with stone outcrops, scenic forests and deep valleys with sparkling streams. These landscape features are also imbued with spiritual elements underlying religious beliefs and social conduct. The mountain is not only important for the collection of materials for ceremonies and traditions; it is a living place of pilgrimage and a home of spirit beings.

With uranium prices rising and uranium claims in the Mt. Taylor area increasing from 0 in 2003 to 163 in 2008, new mining and milling operations have been proposed on the mountain. Searching for a means of having their values addressed in the face of these mining projects, the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna and Zuni,  the Navajo Nation, and the Hopi Tribe requested an emergency listing of Mt. Taylor as a traditional cultural property (TCP) in the State Register of Cultural Properties.

The state Cultural Properties Review Committee (CPRC), as provided by state law, listed the property for no more than one year while the committee investigates it to determine if Mt. Taylor should be kept in the register permanently. While the advent of mining was presented as the reason for the emergency, CPRC Chairman Estevan Rael-Galvez stated clearly that the listing was not about putting a stop sign in front of mining interests but about establishing the CPRC’s responsibility to advise on cultural properties and Mt. Taylor’s eligibility for listing in the state register.

Listing in the state register requires consultation between state agencies when certain state mining and water permits are requested. In states like New Mexico, state agencies issue the permits for extractive industry and water use. So while a mine may be situated on federal land and require compliance with Section 106 of the NHPA, the state will process the permit to mine under state laws.

The tribal decision to seek a nomination to the state register was a difficult one. It was made to invoke the protections afforded by the state register in light of recent exploratory activity by mining and other interests, as the tribes and pueblos are most concerned for their cultures—the meaning, sense, and wisdom of place, and spirits who guide them and inhabit the mountain. Some wonder why the pueblos and tribes are speaking out now. Acoma Pueblo’s Lieutenant Governor Mark Thompson explains that the tribes have withheld information on some of their practices in the past because they were misinterpreted or resulted in persecution. But he says the threats to Mt. Taylor overrode those concerns, and that the tribes have to take that risk to protect what is sacred and very personal to them.

In March 2008 the Cibola National Forest determined that Mt. Taylor is a traditional cultural property eligible for the National Register of Historic Places under three criteria: Criterion A for its association with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; B for its association with the lives of persons significant in our past; and D for having yielded or may be likely to yield information important in prehistory or history. According to the report submitted, there are common elements based on oral histories shared by the tribes involved in the consultation for the determination:

  • It’s a place where practitioners go to conduct traditional cultural and religious activities.
  • Mt. Taylor has been in use since time immemorial and the use is ongoing.
  • It is a place that figures prominently in oral traditions regarding origin, place of emergence, and migration.
  • The mountain is viewed as a living, breathing entity that embodies a spiritual essence.
  • Spirit beings recounted in oral traditions inhabit the mountain.
  • Mt. Taylor is considered a sacred landscape, part of a larger cultural landscape.
  • The mountain encompasses the peak, adjacent mesas, plateaus, and valleys.
  • The mountain is important in ceremony and plays a vital role in cosmology and religion.
  • It is a distinctive landmark and a way point to aid travel.

Managing Competing Interests

Federal public lands agencies are responsible for ongoing management of millions of acres of public lands across the United States (about 13 percent of the total land surface of the United States and more than 40
percent of all land managed by the federal government), and many of these landscapes have competing demand for uses and values.

Now add another layer of complexity—surface ownership can differ from subsurface or mineral ownership. Under the system of split estate, rights to remove minerals, oil, and, in the case of New Mexico, water, may be separate from other rights to the land. Separation of surface rights and mineral rights is not a new event; it has occurred for years, often because of federal laws such as the Stock Raising Homestead Act of 1916. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM have multiple-use missions that allow for a variety of uses, including development of energy resources such as coal, oil, gas, and geothermal, biomass, hydropower, solar, and wind power. To gain some appreciation of split estate, nationwide the BLM manages 261 million acres of surface estate along with 700 million acres of subsurface mineral estate. The 1872 Mining Law provides that once a valid claim is staked it can be developed and the land manager cannot deny access. Acquisition of the claims, if the owner is willing to sell, or direct intervention by the Secretary of the Interior are the only forms of recourse available.

While often difficult for citizens to understand, different public land managers have different mission-related responsibilities in statute. Through the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976, the BLM has protections written into law that establish the agency’s multiple-use mandate to serve present and future generations and to call out protections for archeological resources. In the case of the Forest Service the cultural resources are not mentioned in statute. In addition, in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a decision in a New Mexico case that Congress intended National Forests to be reserved for only two purposes: to protect watersheds and to ensure a continuous supply of timber (United States v. New Mexico,438 U.S. 696 (1978)).

The enormity of the size of the lands managed also challenges public land managers. How can you care for something if you don’t know it’s there? Agencies lack funding to conduct inventories, resulting in a common practice of letting the proponent of a project pay for the identification of historic resources. In the classic case, industry is asked to find the resources and then redesign the project to avoid them. While obviously not ideal, this system does increase our knowledge and opportunity to provide limited care of resources. It still avoids the larger responsibility stated in the NHPA, to plan for historic properties.

This proponent-driven approach promotes a very narrow style of preservation, as it is project specific. The proponent can financially accept the impact the project may have on a limited area but that means that the big picture isn’t seen. Unless you can show the effect on the larger landscape, I think most of us would agree it shouldn’t be the responsibility of one oil and gas developer to survey several thousand acres if its project encompasses ten. A look at some survey maps of New Mexico reveals resources were identified along the proposed road to a well pad, but if those resources border a much larger and important resource there is a good chance we won’t know. And the project may be redesigned to avoid the known site, but, by providing access, the site(s) may be destroyed over time anyway. The general approach for archeology to avoid or mitigate by excavation is not the answer for traditional cultural properties, making the issue of protection much more difficult.

Safeguarding Traditional Cultural Sites on Mt. Taylor and Elsewhere

With the Mt. Taylor statements of eligibility of the state and national registers, both state and federal agencies have information and associations stating what makes the mountain important to the tribes and pueblos. It appears that by being forward about their longstanding traditions and relationship to the mountain, the native communities have expressed a desire to discuss the impacts of proposed projects at early stages in their development and work toward resolution. Based on projects currently proposed, we will soon see how well the existing legal framework can address the tribal concerns for the mountain and their communities.

In the long term, the information provided through ongoing consultation can assist federal and state agencies in identifying what uses are acceptable or compatible and to make decisions to restrict activities in areas where they are incompatible when possible. Lieutenant Governor Thompson said providing the information was painful and in some ways at odds with the very activity they hope might receive protections. Far too often our policies impose a static response in conflict with dynamic living communities.

And we shouldn’t assume industry, government, and the public at large are the culprits. We acknowledge the need of industry and government to generate income and the public’s desire to experience first hand the marvel of our nation’s public lands. To ensure this, we, as stewards of our nation and state’s patrimony, need to work together and decide what uses are suitable and sustainable. Perhaps more challenging will be finding appropriate safeguards for the perpetuation and well-being of our nation’s traditional cultures. Whether those safeguards will be establishing funds for retiring mineral claims or changing state and national laws, Americans and visitors who cherish our public lands should have the opportunity to connect with such places as Mt. Taylor for generations to come.


Publication Date: Summer 2008

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Author(s):Katherine Slick