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US must preserve our cultural sites

Over the past four years, the Trump administration’s fire sale of public lands to the oil and gas industry ignored established legal procedures and the science of climate change. In total, New Mexicans lost more than a quarter of a million acres of public land.

As a former governor of the Pueblo Acoma and former co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors Natural Resources Committee, I have seen the damage to Native American ancestral lands in New Mexico and southeastern Utah, whose landscapes are held sacred by many tribal communities.

Recognized cultural sites and landscapes are not confined to the boundaries of reservations and national parks, such as in the greater Chaco region. The cultural history of Native ancestral people runs deep throughout the Americas – their settlements, religious pilgrimage trails, petroglyphs and other cultural resources that include minerals, flora and fauna deserve recognition and protection.

However, once lands are handed over to industry, Native Americans are prohibited from accessing these areas and development often goes unmonitored, destroying important sites and the landscape.

The existing process to permit parcels on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands works for the oil and gas industry but not for Native Americans or local communities. We are instead left to seek legal resolution for our concerns, and I have been involved in these struggles to have pueblo voices be heard.

In recent years, the BLM changed its process to move these sales as swiftly as possible, taking advantage of existing policies and modifying others to fast-track public land into private hands. Native Americans, whose ancestral homelands were impacted, were minimally consulted. These actions undermine the federal government’s trust responsibility to Native America and ignore the recognition of tribal sovereignty long acknowledged by the United States.

This harm done to ancestral lands could have been avoided had Native Americans been invited to work with the BLM prior to parcel nomination. Consultation with affected pueblos, tribes, nations and communities requires time and patience, neither of which was a priority by the past administration. Land was offered to industries that have a history of polluting the air, land and water, threatening national parks and surrounding landscapes.

With new Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American in the role, we have a chance to reform this broken system together. As part of this, tribal communities should have the opportunity to work with the BLM to complete cultural surveys on federal land to form a register of sacred and traditional sites that should be protected before parcels are considered for lease.

Sacred ancestral lands and landscapes tell an important story of Native Americans. These sites are archeological wonders that are integral to the history of this nation. They should be places where all Americans can learn about the rich history of our country and the people who lived here centuries ago and stewarded this land prior to European contact, without the smell of methane, mechanical rigs overwhelming the sounds of nature and flaring lighting the night sky.

Kurt Riley is former chairman of the Ten Southern Pueblos Council and former co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors Natural Resources Committee.

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