ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. ? Congress has begun to act on the often-controversial Sandia Mountain land claim, holding two Senate committee hearings April 24 on a bill to settle Sandia Pueblo's claim to nearly 10,000 acres of land encompassing the west face of the Sandia Mountains.
Exchanges between opposing groups about the Pueblo's land claim have often been heated confrontations, fraught with uncertainty about the status of landowners in the area. But cool tempers and calm dialogue, punctuated by an occasional humorous remark, prevailed during a public forum at the University of New Mexico's Law School, April 20.
Up for discussion this day was the settlement agreement reached between Sandia Pueblo, Sandia Peak Tram Co., and the federal government over who will be the perpetual stewards of the Sandia Mountains. This forum was organized to elicit debate and inform the public about the Pueblo's intentions.
Closure was the mantra of the afternoon as residents, members of various wilderness groups, as well as Sandia Pueblo members concurred over the once hotly debated, 16-year old issues of land preservation, title and rights-of-way.
"We want to get good information out there," said Michael Robinson, attorney for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and presenter at the forum, "so people can make an honest, educated, informed assessment about what the settlement really says."
The compromise is now before Congress as Senate bill S. 2018, the T'uf Shur Bien Preservation Trust Area Act, introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., last month. Some issues are still unresolved. At the Senate hearings, Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., expressed concern about veto power retained by the Pueblo and county governments and the open question over actual ownership of the mountain slope.
But most of the approximately 150 people in the audience and on the panel in Albuquerque were nodding heads in agreement that that 99 percent of the problems with the settlement were finally resolved. Robinson said the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and the National Parks Conservation Association support the deal. He called it a win-win for everyone involved.
Robinson said the controversy over the settlement agreement was a result of a misunderstanding of the Pueblo's intentions.
"You are dealing with a cultural issue and land claims," he said. "Land claims are just contentious, divisive ? people hear 'land claim' and have knee-jerk reactions to it," he continued. "This is (the homeowners') chance for permanence, to have their property protected and also have the nature of the area ? which is why I am sure most of them moved up there ? protected," said the attorney.
"We are looking for a permanent solution so this doesn't come back again," agreed Anita Williams, co-chair and legal council for the Sandia Mountain Coalition, a group of homeowners still opposed to several issues in the settlement agreement.
Williams explained she wants wording in the settlement to be explicit. "It's the trust, it's veto power, to not have any ambiguities ? that's where we are."
Williams stated the homeowners she represents would feel more protected if the wording in the bill were more specific. She is also concerned about the rights of homeowners and stated she wanted the same flexibility in land-use decisions as other residents of the city and county.
"I'd like to say that this is not about wealth," said Frank Paisano, a Sandia Pueblo elder. "This is about preservation. I hope people can understand that the whole intent was to preserve the mountain. I'd like to leave here hoping everyone understands preservation."
According to Paisano, the land claim resulted from concern for the mountain during the 1980s, when many requests for mining were submitted to the Pueblo.
"If we start punching holes, then we're going to destroy our mountain," Paisano recalls elders saying. "It's always been the Pueblo's and the elders' feelings that wealth is something you can acquire elsewhere. But what God created for us ? there is nothing comparable to anything in this world, money-wise. It's always been our decision to do whatever we could, whether we're rich or poor to preserve the mountain and keep it in its pristine state," he said.
Paisano is also disappointed that New Mexico lawmakers were not at the forum. "I feel the people that should have been here weren't," he said. "It takes a unified effort," he continued. "If they're not aboard, then where do we go from here? I feel that the public is comfortable, but there's that question about the people who make decisions."
Sandia Pueblo Gov. Steuwart Paisano said he felt optimistic about the pending legislation after this meeting. "A handful of individuals that are adamantly opposing the current settlements, have been educated a little bit more," the governor said.
"Hopefully we're going to commit to some type of resolution."
Information about the T'uf Shur Bien Preservation Trust Area Act can be found online at www.senate.gov/~energy.