Sierra Club, Tribes Team Up to Protect Sacred Lands
The Sierra Club and its tribal partners won a hard-fought victory on June 15 when 541 square miles of New Mexico's Mount Taylor, held sacred to many southwestern tribes, were listed on the state's Register of Cultural Properties. The designation will trigger an automatic consultation with the tribes for any new development proposals in the area.
"The tribes and other community leaders are committed to opposing new mining proposals one by one and to do everything they can to use this cultural designation to protect Mount Taylor," says Sierra Club Associate Regional Representative Robert Tohe, below, himself a Navajo.
For the last year-and-a-half the Sierra Club's Environmental Justice Program has been working with the Acoma, Laguna, Zuni, Hopi, and Navajo tribes to protect Mount Taylor from uranium mining. Despite enormous pressure from pro-mining interests, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee (CPRC) voted to permanently list Mount Taylor to the state registry.
The Sierra Club did media releases throughout New Mexico and worked hand-in-hand with the tribal grassroots group Dine Bidziil and cultural/spiritual groups Dine Hataalii and Aza Bee Nahangha of the Dine (Navajo) Nation.
"With the help of Sierra Club online organizer Jessica Eagle, who sent out action alerts to Rio Grande Chapter members, we were able to get more than 450 comments submitted to the CPRC in support of the tribal nomination," says Tohe, who attended all the meetings with the state and delivered supporting nominations at every CRPC hearing on the Mount Taylor designation.
Dr. David Begay, policy advisor to Dine Hataalii, was instrumental in laying the foundation for the win. Begay is pictured below, delivering the support resolution for Mount Taylor from the Dine Hataalii Association at the CPRC meeting in the House Chamber of the New Mexico legislature in Santa Fe on May 15. He also led an offering ceremony on Mount Taylor last fall to help the tribes prevail in the fight to protect their sacred lands.
The Club has been working to protect sacred lands on Mount Taylor ever since a renewed surge of interest in uranium mining in the area in 2006.
"We realized mining groups were going to be requesting new permits from state and federal mining agencies," Tohe says, "so we used the experience that we gained from our successful effort with tribal partners to protect the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff. In this case, the tribes thought it would be appropriate to take apply through the state preservation office to get Mount Taylor on the state registry of historic places."
Tohe notes that even though mining companies and non-tribal residents of the area who hoped to benefit from uranium mining jobs called the cultural designation a "land grab," all private lands are excluded from the designation, so private property rights have been upheld. "And contrary to rumors being spread by the opposition,," Tohe says, "all uses such as recreation, hunting, and wood gathering on public lands, like National Forest and BLM lands, will be unaffected. But from now on, the tribes can use this designation to slow down the permitting process for new uranium mining proposals on Mount Taylor."
Photo of Dr. David Begay by Leona Morgan.