ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Five American Indian tribes hope to convince a state committee that Mount Taylor’s cultural resources are worth preserving, but opponents fear protection for the mountaintop will interfere with private property rights and economic development.
The state Cultural Properties Review Committee meeting will be the first time Mount Taylor will be considered for a permanent spot on the State Register of Cultural Properties after the western New Mexican mountain was given a temporary emergency listing during a heated meeting attended by hundreds of people a year ago.
The committee plans to take public comments in Santa Fe May 15. People also can comment in writing until May 20.
The review committee is scheduled to vote June 5.
The boundary of the proposed protected area on Mount Taylor has grown since last spring. It extends from the mountain’s 11,301-foot summit to the bases of five mesas surrounding it, encompassing 439,000 acres or 686 square miles.
The proposed designation has pitted private property owners and people with business interests on the mountain – the region is known for its uranium deposits – against tribal members and others who want to preserve the mountain as a sacred place and protect its natural and historical resources.
“It’s created a lot of hard feelings and a lot of difficult conversations,” said Joy Burns of Grants, whose family has owned 14,000 acres on the east side of Mount Taylor since her grandfather bought it in the 1930s.
Last month, Mount Taylor was listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 most endangered historic places in America for 2009.
Acoma Pueblo Lt. Gov. Mark Thompson said he planned to attend the meeting May 15, but declined to discuss the proposal ahead of time.
The Acoma, Laguna and Zuni pueblos, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi tribe of Arizona asked New Mexico to approve the listing for a mountain they consider sacred.
Acoma Pueblo, which initiated the effort to protect the mountain, calls Mount Taylor Kaweshtima, according to the tribe’s portion of the nomination for the register. The mountain plays a significant role in tribal pilgrimages and sacred rites. Tribal members conduct blessings asking the mountain for permission to collect items used in community rituals, and tribal leaders bring water from the mountain back to reservoirs at Sky City so they do not fail during the dry months.
State Land Commissioner Pat Lyons also opposes the designation of such a large area because it will “severely” limit the amount of revenue his office can raise for schools by issuing mining, solar or wind farm leases.
“We are adamantly opposed to what they want to do,” Lyons said. “We have to get this down to a reasonable amount of property rather than just a land grab.”
Burns, whose family uses its property for summer grazing, elk hunting and cabin getaways, said the land falls within the boundary of the proposed protected area.
She believes that even though private property was excluded from the cultural property designation, landowners would be required to undergo extra reviews by state agencies when obtaining permits.
“We just feel like that’s a clear violation of private property rights,” Burns said.
Katherine Slick, director of the State Historic Preservation Office, denies that listing Mount Taylor as a cultural property will have any effect on landowners’ ability to develop or sell their property.
Slick said she will recommend to the committee that all private property be excluded from the cultural property boundary.
During the past year, residents have hunted, fished, grazed cattle, participated in sporting events and taken care of their property within the designated area, Slick said. “They won’t have to get the approval of the tribes.”
In the past 12 months, Slick said her office has reviewed one permit for a proposed exploratory uranium drilling site.
Ronny Pynes, a Grants businessman, has actively opposed the designation because he fears it would inhibit his family’s use of the mountain.
“I have kids that I raised and took up there,” he said. “I don’t want them to be at the mercy of the tribes or anyone else to go up there and be able to enjoy public-use land.”
Pynes said he believes the proposed designation violates the separation of church and state because of the tribes’ belief that the land is sacred.
“Why is it that their spiritual beliefs are better or more important than yours or mine or anyone else’s?”
Slick said the courts have upheld that religious sites can be included on lists of protected properties if they are important not only to congregants, but to others in the community.
In New Mexico, hundreds of churches already are protected, she said.
The separation of church and state “doesn’t require governments to ignore the historical value of religious sites,” Slick said.
Should the tribes fail to get the mountain listed on the state register permanently, they would have to wait five years before trying again.
But for the people who live around the mountain, the issue already has divided their community.
“It’s the most divisive thing that I’ve ever seen happen in our community in my lifetime of living in the area,” Burns said. “Either way the vote goes, there’s going to be someone who’s unhappy when this is all over.”
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