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Pueblo claim before U.S. Court of Appeals

WASHINGTON - Attorneys representing Sandia Pueblo asked a federal court to prevent homeowners from challenging the nation's claim to ownership of 10,000 acres on the west face of Sandia Mountain, which holds special religious and cultural significance.

The appeal was heard recently by a three-judge panel in Federal District Court here.

In Sandia vs. Babbitt, a lower court ruled in favor of the pueblo and its land claim to part of the mountain which overlooks Albuquerque, N.M. The federal government, a group of private homeowners and the city of Albuquerque appealed that decision.

In 1994, Sandia Pueblo sued the secretaries of Interior and Agriculture, seeking a judgment to designate the main ridge of Sandia Mountain as the pueblo's eastern boundary and correct an original survey conducted by Interior in 1859 which the pueblo claims is incorrect.

The pueblo contends a Spanish land grant in 1748, confirmed by Congress in 1858, sets the eastern boundary of the pueblo as "the main ridge" of Sandia Mountain. However, an Interior survey in 1859 sets the eastern boundary in the foothills, 10,000 acres less than the original grant.

Members of the tribal council say the land within their claim is of religious and cultural significance. Their only goal, they say, is to protect the area for religious ceremonies and improve access for tribal members.

"We've seen so much activity and development in the area," said Councilman Frank Chavez. "Our people are stopped and are required to carry permits to enter the area to practice our religion. We only seek to protect the land and have unfettered access for religious and cultural practice."

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Most of the area claimed by the pueblo is National Forest land and is designated as wilderness. About 700 acres is private property. The pueblo's suit expressly excludes all "private land, leases, permits, rights-of-way or other encumbrances in favor of private parties." Despite this exclusion, the lower court granted a motion to intervene to a coalition of area homeowners who say they are already "surrounded" by Indian land and would suffer if further land was granted to the pueblo.

"The land claim has imposed a cloud on the title of the private land holders that has created a great uncertainty in the real estate market, the value of houses and personal financial security," said Thomas Bartman, attorney for the homeowners. "If this claim were granted it would mean that my client's land would be surrounded by Indian country, with Indian regulatory jurisdiction. They may no longer have recourse in state court."

In 1998, despite concerns raised by private land holders, the lower court granted the pueblo's motion and denied the motion by the homeowners. Interior was directed to redraw the boundaries of the pueblo to include the additional 10,000 acres on the west face of Sandia Mountain.

Although the federal government appealed the decision, a settlement is under consideration which would provide better protection and access to the land.

However, under the proposal, the land's reservation trust status is limited. The area would be managed by the National Forest Service, subject to consultation with the Pueblo on expanded uses or restrictions.

While the city of Albuquerque had expressed concern that the claim would restrict public access, access consistent with national forest and wilderness status would be guaranteed under the settlement. If agreed upon, the settlement would have to be ratified by Congress.

The Federal District Court is expected to reach a decision on the appeal in the next few months. Leaders from Sandia say they hope the settlement solves concerns.

"The main issue here is religious freedom," Chavez said. "Our main concern is the protection of the land and access for religious use. That's what this land claim is really about."