Rift widens among area tribes, private landowners
GRANTS — Private landowners and businesses here have a double threat from state and federal traditional cultural property regulations. They are trying to stop the temporary designation of Mount Taylor as a traditional cultural property from becoming permanent, which they say has already violated their rights and stopped them from using their land for any commercial purposes. If made permanent, they say the Grants area economy will be destroyed.
Not only is the state Cultural Property Review Committee considering making a state-level traditional cultural property permanent, but the Forest Service has also temporarily designated Mount Taylor to be a traditional cultural property under the Historic Preservation Act and could move to make it permanent.
The land within the federal traditional cultural property is some 1,100 square miles and includes more than 200,000 acres of private land. Even though the listing is temporary, anyone using land within or nearby the boundaries of the area is required to follow regulations as if the listing were permanent. This means that if landowners wish to do anything with their land requiring a federal or state permit, they must consult with five area tribes, including the Navajo Nation and Pueblo of Acoma, before being allowed to use their land as they wish.
“They did this without public knowledge,” says Joy Burns, who owns land within the traditional cultural property boundaries.
Federal regulations do not require the public or even the landowners within a traditional cultural property boundary to be informed of any intention to designate property as a traditional cultural property. According to Forest Supervisor Nancy Rose, the main concern in creating the listing was the religious beliefs of Native American tribes.
In an op-ed in the Cibola County Beacon, Rose stated that the “determination of any particular activity on the traditional cultural property will generally be on a case-by-case basis in consultation with tribal governments.”
Rose also stated in the op-ed that the Forest Service was required by law to consult with the tribes on their religious beliefs or any other concerns, and that these considerations “extended beyond the scope of inclusion of other citizens, groups, or local governments.”
“My kids can’t have prayer in schools. Isn’t that a double standard?” says Grant resident Ronny Pynes.
The traditional cultural property will only include Forest Service land, according to Rose. But the regulations will also affect any activity on private land that could affect adjacent lands. This loophole will bring thousands of acres of private land under the traditional cultural property umbrella. But Rose says that the traditional cultural property will not prohibit any activity.
“What we’re really looking for is an agreement with a mitigating affect,” she explains.
This means that if a citizen or company is seeking a federal permit for a certain activity whether it is commercial or private, all five tribes must be notified and consulted before the permit is issued. If any one of the tribes has an objection, whatever the basis for the objection, the landowner must find a way to mitigate the concerns.
Rose says that there is no timeline on how long these discussions can last, which means that just about any activity could face so many delays that it’s no longer practical to pursue. Likewise, the traditional cultural property greatly increases the costs of certain permits.
Joe Lister, general manager of the Mount Taylor mine, says that he is required to get a permit to use a pipeline that crosses a small area of Forest Service land. In the past, the cost was $60. His costs for the permit have now increased to $600,000, most of which is because of delays from the traditional cultural property. He says that the designation will decimate the area’s economy.
“It’s beyond my comprehension why someone would shoot themselves in the foot economically,” Lister says.
The tribes had specifically sought the traditional cultural property designation in response to drilling permit applications from uranium companies. Even though the drilling is only exploratory and on private land, the tribes wanted a say in how the private land was going to be used.
Rose says that she understands that there are some questions that need to be addressed, and there were other considerations that the Forest Service did not take into account.
“If we were able to do it again, we’d do it differently. We’re learning here,” Rose says.