Legislation hopes to settle Sandia land claim

SANDIA PUEBLO, N.M. ? Each morning, like thousands of other Pueblo people, Gov. Stuwart Paisano faces east to pray to the altar of his people ? the majestic Sandia Mountain that towers over the Rio Grande valley.

These days, his prayers include the hope that legislation introduced March 14 by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., will finally resolve a long-standing dispute over nearly 10,000 acres on the west face of the mountain.

For the Pueblo of Sandia, it's a difficult compromise. The legislation will relinquish the Pueblo's claim for trust status and complete control of the face of the mountain in exchange for protecting it from future development.

"It was really a hard choice for the tribal council to make," said Gov. Paisano. He said the tribe decided to pursue a legislative remedy after lower court rulings in their favor were appealed. "We don't know how long the appeals will take to reach the Supreme Court, and we had to consider the fact that Indian cases have not fared well in recent years. We hope the settlement achieved in this legislation will prevent our mountain from being further desecrated or destroyed."

If approved by Congress, Bingaman's bill will transform Sandia's sacred ancestral territory into Tuf Shur Bien Preservation Trust Area, owned by the federal government and managed by the U.S. Forest Service as part of Cibola National Forest.

"This legislation does not give any party everything it sought, but it protects the interests of the Pueblo, the public and the affected landowners, and will hopefully resolve this contentious issue," said Sen. Bingaman.

The bill will also guarantee unobstructed access for religious and cultural practices by tribal members and allow them to hunt, trap and gather within the proposed preservation area, but they must abide by New Mexico hunting laws.

Gov. Paisano said he has heard criticism from tribal members that they are giving up too much, but because the area contains some of the most sacred shrines for Sandia Pueblo and other tribes, his foremost concern is ensuring the mountain is not destroyed through uncontrolled future development.

Presently, dozens of radio and microwave towers are clustered atop Sandia Peak and a tramway carries tourists up the face of the mountain daily. Million-dollar homes are nestled on the mountainside and the foothills are crowded by thousands of residents living on the eastern border of New Mexico's largest city, Albuquerque.

Sandia Mountain has thousands of visitors annually who use it as a popular recreation area with hiking trails, a small skiing operation, a restaurant, visitor center, hand-gliding launch sites and several private subdivisions.

But before that, it was home to Pueblo people for more than seven centuries and has been used continuously for ceremonies and prayer. It was also the place people took refuge during the Spanish conquest after Sandia Pueblo was burned in the late 1600s.

Many survivors fled to distant Hopi villages and were later granted permission to resettle their territory in 1748 through a Spanish land grant that established the Pueblo's more limited boundaries.

"It has been very difficult to get the outside world to understand what Sandia Mountain means to our people," Gov. Paisano said. "It is central to our identity, religion, oral history and songs. It is a source of life and healing to us, and we have a sacred duty to protect and preserve it."

The 1748 Spanish land grant ? confirmed by an act of Congress in 1858 ? established the Pueblo's eastern boundary as "the main ridge" of the 10,680-foot Sandia Mountain.

However, in 1859, an Interior Department surveyor erroneously drew the boundary at the base of the mountain, thereby excluding 9,890 acres from the tribe's land base.

Sandia Pueblo sued the Interior and Agriculture Departments in 1994 to correct the 1859 survey, and at the time assured homeowners and businesses within the disputed area that it would not assert title, taxation or jurisdiction over private land, leases and rights-of-way.

Despite the tribe's assurances, an opposing coalition of homeowners, Bernalillo County and the City of Albuquerque were allowed to intervene in the case by a federal judge.

In 1998, the District Court held that the Interior Department had violated the Administrative Procedures Act and breached its fiduciary responsibility to the Pueblo by failing to correct the boundary. Interior and the coalition of private landowners appealed the decision.

Parties to the case then engaged in two years of negotiations. The U.S. Forest Service, Sandia Peak Tram Company and the Pueblo eventually arrived at a settlement in April 2000.

However, those who intervened in the lawsuit have refused to execute the agreement and an act of Congress is needed for it to take effect. Some want more modifications, others simply oppose the Pueblo's rights to the land.

The bill contains many benefits for private property owners, the public and the U.S. Forest Service. It will clear title for existing landowners within the Pueblo's claim area. The public will maintain ownership and access to the national forest and preservation area.

Existing roads and utility corridors that currently lack legal or long-term rights-of-way through Pueblo trust land will gain permanent easements. And Bernalillo and Sandoval counties will have a "right to consent or withhold consent to new users" equal to that of the Pueblo.

Bingaman said he spent months talking to as many parties as he could and he hopes the bill will be heard within the next two months.

"The legislation seeks to find resolution to a very complicated situation," he said. "In writing it, I sought input from all sides ? even those who did not participate in the negotiations that led to the April 2000 agreement."

Paisano said he is grateful for Bingaman's efforts and is hopeful the legislation will be supported in Congress, eliminating the need for drawn-out litigation that could take years to reach the U.S. Supreme Court and which, even then, might not achieve a positive outcome for the tribe.

Recently, Paisano was encouraged by the favorable turn-around of the Sandia Heights Homeowner's Association, representing some 2,200 residents who voted to support the new legislation.

"I hope as more people see that this a very reasonable approach ? something that's beneficial for everyone in the long-term ? they will let Congress know they support it," Paisano said. "It's what I pray for."