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Natives Correct that USDA Bungles Sacred Site Issues

A new draft report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture finds that American Indians are correct in believing that the federal government and the agency’s U.S. Forest Service in particular are doing poorly on understanding sacred site issues from Native viewpoints, and it calls for many improvements.

“We hope this report will foster change in how Indian tribes and the Forest Service interact on land management decisions for the good of all Americans,” the authors write in their executive summary. “It is our hope that these recommendations lead to meaningful changes in the way Native American Sacred Sites are protected and accessed. Perhaps, just as important, they will lead to a better understanding of Native American values as American values.”

A major finding of the report is that some Forest Service land management decisions and actions, as well as the activities of third parties, have “led to damage, destruction, and desecration of Native American Sacred Sites.” Further, “[a]lthough we heard many success stories about successful partnering and communication between tribes and the agency, we also heard about inconsistencies in Forest Service consultative/collaborative processes,” the report lists as a major finding. “Forest Service attempts at consultation are ineffective when done in ways that tribes do not consider meaningful.”

Tribal officials have long complained that consultation sessions, if conducted at all, tend to be done by federal agencies on their terms, rendering real tribal input moot. And they have said that Forest Service decisions and actions performed in a vacuum have been particularly harmful to sacred sites.

In terms of law and policy issues, the report says that the agency’s land managers sometimes have not used discretion available to them under current laws and policies for the benefit of tribes. The report also says that tribes and agency employees expressed “serious concerns” with Executive Order 13007, which was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and was meant to strengthen the executive branches handling of sacred site matters, but ended up narrowly defining sacred sites—to the detriment of some tribes; and the 1872 Mining Law, which authorizes and governs prospecting and mining for minerals on federal public lands.

The report says that the overall goal of the study is for the Forest Service to “do a better job incorporating Sacred Sites issues into the agency’s mission to deliver forest goods and services for current and future generations.” It comes in response to a request by Tom Vilsack, secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who has already witnessed high-profile conflicts between federal and tribal officials on some major sacred site issues during his short time in his position since 2008.

One of the most contentious ongoing sacred site battles Vilsack has been involved with centers on the Forest Service and USDA’s decision to allow the Snowbowl Ski Resort in Arizona to use reclaimed wastewater to create snow on the San Francisco Peaks—a site held sacred by many tribes. A legal motion offered by Native Americans and environmentalists filed in June before the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona said that an environmental impact statement offered by the Forest Service in reference to development of the resort does not include the federally required “reasonably thorough discussion” of the impacts associated with the ingestion of snow made from reclaimed sewer water. Indians have long claimed that the federal government acted improperly in terms of policy and consultation on the development. The case is ongoing.

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“The consistent on-the-ground application of currently available tools could begin to reverse past harms to Sacred Sites,” is one suggestion the current report offers for rectifying tribal-federal problems. Another is that Forest Service managers would benefit from more explicit policy language to protect sacred sites. “It is within the discretion of the agency under current law, regulation, and policy to provide for greater protection of Sacred Sites,” the report says. In terms of the narrow definition of sacred sites in Executive Order 13007, the report suggests adding a new concept of sacred places to the agency’s directives “to step beyond the narrow definition of Sacred Sites in Executive Order 13007” and to “[w]ork to improve Executive Order 13007 by revising the definition of Sacred Sites and enhancing the Executive order’s confidentiality requirement.” “The agency should look for opportunities to strengthen and simplify confidentiality requirements in the next revision of the Farm Bill,” according to the report.

The report further suggests that better relationships and improved communications must be forged with tribes through regularly scheduled consultations and the use of written agreements. In addition, training should cover relationship building, protection, tools, and cultural competency with Indians being invited to assist.

“Forest Service succession planning should include more full-time tribal relations managers and liaisons, recognizing that current and future budget constraints will be a challenge to any adjustment,” according to the report. “Recruitment and outreach should be focused on Native Americans, with an objective of increasing the overall diversity of Forest Service employees. Line officers should be held accountable for protecting Sacred Sites through performance measures or other means.” The agency should also partner with and recruit Native Americans to help do a better job of interpretation, law enforcement, archaeology, youth involvement, and other functions, according to the report.

In terms of funding, most of the recommendations are within the scope of the current authorities available to the Forest Service to implement, according to the report, but are contingent on the availability of funding. “These recommendations should not be construed as commitments to request additional funding,” says the report. “Some recommendations will require action by the Secretary’s Office, the President, or Congress to fully realize.” It says, too: “The current budget environment indicates that there will likely be continued constrained funding levels in the future. Therefore, actions recommended in this report may have to be accomplished within available funds.”

The report was created by a team of four senior executives of the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations and the Forest Service who visited Native American communities to discuss how the agency can improve. According to the report, more than 50 listening sessions were held in Indian country both via telephone and in person. “These listening sessions reached out to native communities, engaging not only tribal leadership but also culture-keepers, traditional practitioners, and unaffiliated native descendants,” according to the report.

The team also asked Forest Service employees to rate the effectiveness of the agency’s efforts to manage land that includes sacred sites. “The listening sessions and employee survey revealed that Native Americans and Forest Service managers share many of the same concerns about Sacred Sites protection,” according to the report.

The report, currently in draft form, is expected to be released in final form in November. Vilsack will then review it, and release his final recommendations for improvement and proposed procedural changes.

Indians are being asked to review the draft, and to provide input via ways listed here. Interested parties may e-mail for more information, to request a hard copy or CD of the report, or to arrange a meeting. A tribal relations contact list is available online.