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Fight Over Mountain Emotional

By Leslie Linthicum
Copyright © 2008 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    GRANTS— A state committee, after hearing hours of impassioned debate Saturday, upheld its earlier decision to name Mount Taylor a "traditional cultural property," a designation that will give nearby Indian tribes a say in the approval process of state mining permits on the mountain.
    Mount Taylor sits in a rich uranium ore zone, and uranium mining— an industry many in Grants see as their economic salvation— was at the center of one side of the debate. Indian spirituality was at the center of the other side.
    At the end of the marathon meeting and 4-2 vote, tribal members cheered, while opponents who were mostly non-Indians from Cibola County walked out silently.
    A traditional cultural property designation does not freeze development on public or private property— something many of those who spoke against it Saturday insisted it does— according to the state's chief preservation officer Katharine Slick. It requires that the state Historic Preservation Office be involved in the review of all proposed development activities that require a state permit on all public and private land within the designated area, which is a 422,840-acre swath that includes the entire mountain above 8,000 feet.
    The committee was reconsidering a decision it made earlier this year after the state Attorney General's Office ruled that it did not give adequate notice to area landowners.
    As it did in February, the panel approved a temporary listing of the mountain, which will last one year and may be made permanent.
People divided
    Mount Taylor sat watch under a broiling blue sky, and police officers stood watch inside as hundreds of people gathered in a high school gym in Grants to argue passionately about the mountain's future.
    The Grants High School basketball gym was divided— literally— with several hundred members of four pueblos and the Navajo Nation seated in the bleachers on one side, making a case for Mount Taylor's religious and cultural importance and need for protection. Several hundred Anglos and Hispanics from Cibola County were seated in the bleachers on the other side, making their case for leaving the mountain free from more government regulation and specifically to allow uranium mining development there.
    Members of the Cultural Properties Review Committee sat at center court and heard from just less than 100 speakers during five hours.
    The speeches were impassioned.
    Curtis Francisco of Laguna Pueblo: "We don't look at it just as a shrine. We look at it as life itself."
    Walter Meech of Cibola County: "It doesn't make sense that we need one more government agency to come in and regulate us. We've already got enough."
    Mark Thompson, the first lieutenant governor of Acoma Pueblo: "The identified area is integral, vital to who we are as a people and to our continued existence."
    Terry Fletcher, chairman of the New Mexico Mining Commission: "This is an anti-mining act and uranium in particular."
    Many of those who spoke against the designation called it an excuse for a land grab by Indian tribes. And they argued that the committee had its mind made up before hearing from them.
'It's Our Mountain Too!'
    The issue has been as divisive in Grants and Cibola County as it was on the basketball court.
    Clemente Sanchez warned the committee that even discussing the designation was harming the community. Pointing to Indians on one side of the gym and Hispanics and Anglos on the other, he said: "Maybe it would be better to have no designation. Maybe it would help bring our community together."
    Green stickers were handed out at the door that read, "It's Our Mountain Too!" and people on both sides of the issue wore them.
    Mount Taylor and its mesas rise from the desert, and its peak— often capped with snow— reaches 11,301 feet. The mountain can be seen from Albuquerque, 80 miles away, and beckons hikers, hunters, piñon gatherers, and skiers and bikers for an annual quadrathlon.
    Members of Acoma Pueblo call the mountain Kawesktima, "a place of snow." To the Navajo it is Tsoodzil, or "turquoise mountain." The Zunis call it Dewankwi Kyabachu Yalanne or "in the east snow-capped mountain."
    Members of those tribes, along with the Hopis and Lagunas, made the application for a traditional cultural property distinction for the mountain.
    The tribes hold the mountain sacred, and it plays a part in their traditional lives. It is a place where their deities live; where shrines are visited; where feathers, plants and soils are collected for religious uses; and where pilgrimages are made for prayers.
    Members of the tribes said they asked for the state designation after they saw a flurry of uranium exploration permits for the mountain and after some exploration activities disturbed religious shrines and ancestral graves.
    Opponents argued that the federal government already consults with affected tribes on development issues on its land and that the state Mining and Minerals Division, while it is not required to, also informs tribes and accepts their input on mining permits on the mountain.
    Opponents also argued that the hearing was a farce, that the committee had already made up its mind and that it heard more from tribes than from non-Indians.
    Representatives from each of the five tribes requesting the designation were given five minutes to speak while everyone else— Indian and non-Indian— was given two minutes to comment.
    "We have done as much as we possibly can to hear from both sides," committee Chairman Estevan Rael-Galvan, who is also the state's historian, said. "I don't agree it's a sham."