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Thursday, November 19, 2009
Group Challenges Mt. Taylor Listing
By Scott Sandlin
Journal Staff Writer
A group of landowners and energy companies with leases in the Mount Taylor area has gone to court to challenge the state listing of more than 700 square miles of the mountaintop on the New Mexico Register of Cultural Properties.
The challenge has now landed in U.S. District Court in Santa Fe.
Acoma, Laguna and Zuni pueblos, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe nominated more than 400,000 acres in the Mount Taylor area for listing as a traditional cultural property under criteria showing significance "from time immemorial to the present."
After a series of contentious meetings and hearings in 2008 and 2009, the listing was unanimously approved by the state Cultural Properties Review Committee in September because of Mount Taylor's importance to broad patterns of history, its association with historical figures and its potential for yielding important information in history or prehistory.
But designation as a traditional cultural property gives tribes a say in the process of approving state mining permits, and worries over private property rights is among concerns fueling the litigation.
Among the plaintiffs is the owner of a uranium mine, which says it "expects to resume operations at the Mt. Taylor Mine in the foreseeable future, which will require renewing or obtaining state and federal permits."
Lovington-based Rayellen Resources Inc. and five other mining companies, Cebolleta Land Grant and the personal representative of the estate of James H. Williams filed a petition Oct. 13 in 5th Judicial District Court asking for the committee's action to be halted and reversed. The plaintiffs are claiming violations of due process and the New Mexico Open Meetings Act.
They also claim that designating Mount Taylor as a traditional cultural property is a violation of the U.S. Constitution because the committee's action amounts to establishment of religion. The complaint notes tribes invoked the land's religious significance in making their nomination, noting ties to tribal creation stories, the area's place as a home to spiritual deities, and its location for shrines and religious observances.
The state, in placing the land on the state register, noted that hundreds of churches appear on the state and national registers not only because they're churches, but "because of their architectural, historical and cultural significance."
Attorneys defending the state moved the case Friday to federal court, where it is assigned to U.S. District Judge Bruce Black.