ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? Seven people were arrested last week as they tried to block construction of a new, unplanned road along the boundaries of the Petroglyph National Monument, a site considered sacred to dozens of tribes in the Southwest.
The road, quietly authorized by Albuquerque Mayor Martin Chavez for a private land developer, was literally built overnight without the knowledge of the National Park Service, the Albuquerque City Council, the city's transportation and planning board, and thousands of local residents who have been active in the city's long-range transportation planning.
"We're really outraged by the sneaky, under-handed way the mayor pushed this road through," said Sage Council member Laurie Weahkee, whose late father Bill Weahkee, led efforts by the Eight Northern Pueblo Council to halt road development in the area since 1993. "This shows us that the Indian wars are not over ? they are willing to make attacks like this on our sacred sites."
The Anasazi people, ancestors of the 19 Indian Pueblos in New Mexico, carved the oldest petroglyphs more than 3,000 years ago. The symbols represent visions and messages to the spirit world left by their ancestors, and the area has long been used for prayers, offerings and gathering medicinal plants.
"The mayor knew that tribes were very concerned about protecting this sacred area from further damage and desecration," she said. "We've been active in the city's established process for road development for more than six years now and we tried real hard to go by the rules. Now we find that developers and big money still rule and can buy anything."
Weahkee said she found out about the new road after a reporter called her asking about construction on a narrow dirt road that was being bladed and prepared for asphalt near the petroglyph monument. She and others immediately checked out the report and were shocked to find construction underway.
Members of the Sage Council, a coalition of organizations and individuals dedicated to protecting 20,000 ancient petroglyphs carved into volcanic cliffs on the city's west mesa, scheduled a press conference the next day.
As they conducted the press conference, 18 trucks carrying asphalt were lining up. The group made a decision to block the trucks and bulldozers as a peaceful act of civil disobedience and were immediately arrested by police who showed up in full riot gear.
The mayor at first insisted the road, an extension of Universe Boulevard, was "temporary" to ease traffic delays for some 10,000 residents in Ventana Ranch and Paradise Hills who only have access to a two-lane road that currently backs up for miles.
He later announced on a local radio station that the two-lane road would be a starter that would expand to a full artery with bike lanes. He said the road was being paid for by Sandia Properties, developer of Ventana Ranch, and would cost about $700,000.
While some 75 Ventana Ranch residents held a rally to support construction, many people criticized the lack of public input and the sweetheart deal the mayor made to use private funding and bypass existing city transportation plans.
At a special city council meeting called Sept. 9 to address the secretive manner in construction began on the road, Mayor Martin Chavez came under heavy criticism from the majority of the 61 people who signed up to speak.
During a five-hour heated debate, city councilor Eric Griego said the 1.7-mile road was approved without public input and notification. "Someone snuck a road in, that's what happened," he said.
Griego said he alarmed by the thought of as many as 10,000 cars passing through the temporary road that connects to a narrow, downhill two-lane road that runs through the monument.
Griego sponsored a resolution to halt construction for 90-days while city officials examined public safety, environmental and transportation impacts resulting from its construction. The resolution narrowly failed by a 5-4 vote.
Road construction through the monument has been the subject of controversy and protests ever since a six-lane highway was proposed several years ago to ease traffic congestion on Albuquerque's West Side.
Formidable opposition from the National Park Service, which manages the monument, and several Native, environmental and planned-growth organizations had successfully prevented construction of the highway until now.
Many fear additional traffic will lead to further defacement and desecration of the ancient petroglyphs.
At the city council meeting, Sister Agnes Calmarron, a Catholic nun, spoke reverently about the need to respect spiritual beliefs of Native peoples.
"The land has a sacred meaning to the Native people of America," she said. "Do we really understand what holy and sacred mean to the land? What motivates us to change the landscape to fit our agenda about growth and traffic? We need the value this sacred area in a more honorable and respectful way."
Weahkee said the group is now considering legal action and other options to protect the area from what she believes will be a further push to open as many as three roads in the area.
"Desecrating these sacred sites takes away from the entire community," she said. "We are weakening all these prayer sites and our connection to our ancestors. What will we leave to our children?"