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USDA Rules Changes Could Affect San Francisco Peaks' Wastewater Ruling

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For years, American Indians have been working to get consideration paid to sacred sites. Now, in the wake of U.S. approval of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, it seems that at least some government agencies are listening.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service is revising its policy on sacred Native sites that lie on U.S. Forest Service lands, and as part of the retooling process has held a series of listening sessions with American Indian leaders and tribe members this year. Now officials are preparing a document for comment in June, and will send out the final draft by November 2011.

“We need your help to examine the effectiveness of existing laws and regulations as well as recommendations for future policy or guidelines that will ensure a consistent level of sacred site protection that is more acceptable to tribes,” the USDA Office of Tribal Relations wrote to leaders in November 2010, when the process began.

What they’re trying to do is make changes that better protect sacred sites, said Rodney Tahe, Navajo, a policy analyst with the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission (NNHRC).

“It’s progress,” said Tahe. “We’ll see what comes out of it. Right now we’re just waiting for them to draft the report.”

Any rules changes—it’s up to USDA head Tom Vilsack to say yay or nay—could have major implications for the San Francisco Peaks outside Flagstaff, Arizona, which came up in the discussions, Tahe said. A controversial plan to make snow out of reconstituted wastewater for skiing has been permitted so far, but new USDA rules could cancel that out, he said, since the peaks fall under USDA jurisdiction.

“If you reverse the decision about approved wastewater usage on Dook’o’osliid (San Francisco Peaks), then these listening session will have made an impact,” said Chief Duane “Chili” Yazzie at the last hearing, according to a Navajo Nation statement.

In St. Michaels, Arizona, on March 16 about 80 people, plus NNHRC members, attended the final day of the listening sessions at the Shiprock Chapter House on the Navajo Nation, the statement said. About 40 attended the meeting at the Coalmine Canyon Chapter House near Tuba City, and 50 the one at the Navajo Nation Museum.

More information is available from the USDA's Office of Tribal Relations.