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State Supreme Court upholds Mount Taylor designation

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View of Mount Taylor

Tourists get a glimpse of Mount Taylor in the distance while touring Acoma Pueblo. The state Supreme Court on Thursday agreed that more than 400,000 acres on and around the mountain should be designated as a traditional cultural property. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

The designation of over 400,000 acres on and around Mount Taylor as a traditional cultural property – affording more protection of archaeological, historic and culturally significant sites – was upheld Thursday in a long-awaited opinion by the state Supreme Court.

The listing by the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee over four years ago did not violate due process, the court said, reversing an earlier finding by a trial judge in Hobbs that the committee had failed to provide personal notice to affected property owners, including those with mineral rights.

The opinion by Justice Charles Daniels for a unanimous court affirmed the lower court on one of the more contentious issues – whether some 19,000 acres of the Cebolleta Land Grant should be included in the listing. The 34,000-acre land grant was established in 1800 by the Spanish crown.

The high court ruled that the Cebolleta grant is not state land as defined in the state Cultural Properties Act, the state counterpart to the National Historic Preservation Act. By affirming 5th District Judge William Shoobridge on that issue, the high court carved out the land grant area from the boundaries.

Rayellen Resources, Destiny Capital and other parties filed the underlying lawsuit in 2009 challenging the state’s permanent designation of Mount Taylor.

Besides due process arguments, Rayellen and others argued that the designated area was simply too large to be inspected and maintained, and therefore could not meet one of the criteria for listing. The trial court agreed on that point.

Once a property is listed, as the opinion notes, other state departments must consult the State Historic Preservation Officer before taking any action “which may affect a registered cultural property.” Private property was excluded from the proposed listing.

The Mount Taylor designation is one of a handful of properties in the nation where a large geographical area has been nominated or declared eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The San Francisco Peaks in Arizona and Kaho’olawe Island in Hawaii are among examples of such status conferred, the court noted.

After Shoobridge’s decision, both Rayellen and Acoma, which had intervened in the lawsuit, filed cross-appeals of different issues. The Court of Appeals, finding the listing an issue of substantial public interest, made no rulings and certified the issue to the Supreme Court.

The case was argued over two hours – double the time of a typical appeal – in September 2012 before the Supreme Court in Santa Fe. Friend-of-the-court briefs were submitted by cattle growers, farmers, oil and gas interests, national archaeological and preservation organizations, and the New Mexico Land Grant Council.

In Thursday’s 21-page opinion, the Supreme Court said that, although the Mount Taylor listing is large, 80 percent of it is owned by federal agencies and the State Land Office, “both of which have inspection programs that can fulfill the act’s inspection mandate.”

An attorney for Rayellen Resources did not return calls seeking comment on the opinion.

Acoma joined other pueblos in seeking an emergency declaration of the land as a traditional cultural property 10 days after the U.S. Forest Service submitted a detailed cultural and ethnographic report chronicling the history of the mountain and its importance, and nominating it for permanent listing. The area includes archaeological sites from before A.D. 500 and rock inscriptions from early Spanish settlers who may have accompanied the Coronado expedition in 1540. Acoma Pueblo Gov. Fred S. Vallo Sr. said in a statement that the tribe is pleased with the court decision on the mountain Acoma calls Kaweshtima.

“Mount Taylor is essential to our maintaining our cultural heritage and vital to providing the resources needed to sustain our pueblo people. This has been the impetus in seeking the designation … as a tool to help in the management of the mountain in all areas of development, recreation and resource extraction,” he said.

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