JEMEZ PUEBLO — A federal appeals court has revived an effort by a Native American community in northern New Mexico to reclaim the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Jemez Pueblo considers the nearly 140-square-mile swath of federally managed public land as a spiritual sanctuary and part of its traditional homeland.
The tribe went before a panel of the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November in hopes of keeping alive its lawsuit against the federal government.
The appeals court issued a ruling Friday, saying a U.S. District Court in Albuquerque should take another look at whether an 1860 land grant extinguished the pueblo’s rights to the land. The tribe will have to prove it had, or still has, aboriginal title.
The court also rejected a motion by the federal government that sought to have the case dismissed.
Jemez Pueblo Gov. Raymond Loretto was in a meeting Monday and not immediately available for comment. He and other tribal leaders have said for years they will not give up on the claim.
Valles Calderas is home to vast grasslands, the remnants of one of North America’s few super volcanoes and one of New Mexico’s most famous elk herds.
The ruling spells out details of the tribe’s connection to the caldera, saying the Jemez people have depended on the area’s natural resources for centuries and the ancient religious pilgrimage trails that link the pueblo to sites within Valles Caldera are still used today.
Spanish land-grant heirs came to hold title to the land following a swap more than 150 years ago. The federal government then purchased the property in 2000 with the goal of operating it as a working ranch while developing recreational opportunities for the public.
Federal attorneys had argued that the tribe’s aboriginal title was essentially extinguished when surveyors, working under the authority of Congress, determined the land was vacant and turned it over to the land-grant heirs in 1860.
In its ruling, the court said the transfer did not by itself serve to extinguish the existing aboriginal title.
Whether Jemez Pueblo can establish that it exercised its right of aboriginal occupancy to the land in 1860 and thereafter is something the tribe will have to prove in district court.
To do so, the appeals court said the tribe must show “actual, exclusive and continuous use and occupancy ‘for a long time.'”
The ruling comes as the National Park Service works to take over management of the preserve under legislation approved last December. While the agency hasn’t commented on the litigation, it says it has a good relationship with the pueblo.