Mount Taylor Looms Large on the Horizon and in the Struggle Among Tribes, a Land Grant, and Ranchers

By KAY MATTHEWS

Wikipedia photo
Wikipedia photo

As is true in many cases of resource extraction and development, the lines of demarcation between those who would profit—corporations— and those whose lives are negatively impacted by the process—communities— are often muddied by economic concerns: how many jobs will be provided, do they pay a living wage, and who will get them. Certainly, when uranium mining and milling first began in the Grants Uranium Belt in the 1970s, the industry was successful in convincing local governments that they could bring economic benefit to largely underemployed and struggling communities.

What they brought, however, has been documented by many, including La Jicarita. Over the past few months we has been covering the impacts of uranium mining and milling in the Grants Uranium Belt on the people and land of the region. “Uranium Boom and Bust: Otra Vez?” took a hard look at the economic, social, and environmental costs of uranium mining in the state. Part Two, “Pending Uranium Mining Proposals in New Mexico”  provided an overview of the state and federal permitting processes that have already begun for proposed mines near Mount Taylor, Crownpoint, and Church Rock. And in “Report From Church Rock: A Uranium Legacy Update” Eric Shultz wrote about the devastating health impacts of the mining industry on the Diné people and the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial plan to clean up the Northeast Church Rock uranium mine, the largest underground uranium mine in the country.

There’s another issue in the uranium belt area that has also devolved into those “for” and those “against,” and this time economic concerns are taking on the mantle of “protecting private property.” In 2009 the state designated Mount Taylor as a Traditional Cultural Property, which puts 434,000 acres of land within the boundary on the State Register of Cultural Properties because of its “tangible cultural properties that have historical and ongoing significance to living communities, as evidenced in their traditional cultural practices, values, beliefs, and identity.”

Map of proposed Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property. Courtesy of the New Mexico Historic Preservation District.
Map of proposed Mount Taylor Traditional Cultural Property. Courtesy of the New Mexico Historic Preservation District.

A TCP designation would not necessarily protect the area from uranium development, but the coalition of Acoma and Laguna pueblos and the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni nations that asked the state for the designation felt it would be the best way to protect Mount Taylor while still providing public access: wood gathering, grazing, hiking, and hunting. Under the TCP designation the Historic Preservation Division and its mining division are required to review permit requests for development on the mountain and that developers consult with tribes during the permitting process. The tribes have no veto over permit decisions, however.

Despite these caveats, and the fact that 89,000 acres of private lands within the boundaries were exempted from protection, local landowners, ranchers, vested mining companies, and the Cebolleta Land Grant filed a legal challenge to the designation in 2010. They prevailed, based primarily on allegations that public notification of the impending classification was inadequate and that the area of designation is too large to be managed, and the designation was withdrawn. Acoma and Laguna pueblos appealed that decision and in September of 2012 the case went to the Supreme Court instead of the Court of Appeals, which certified that whatever decision it would make would be appealed to the higher court. According to Theresa Pasqual, the historic preservation officer at Acoma, at the hearing before the Supreme Court the opponents of the designation were asked to produce a case in which they would “suffer injury” under the designation (be prevented from developing their private property) but were unable to come up with a case.

The “private property” mantra was raised at all the public meetings held on the designation, but a letter to the Albuquerque Journal, in response to an article about the Supreme Court hearing, vociferously laid out the argument. Marron Lee Nelson, a member of the Lee family that owns the 300,000 Lee Ranch northeast of Mount Taylor, wrote that this “aggressive act by the state of New Mexico that will give unprecedented and unwanted power over my family’s use of our private property,” the “sanctity” of that property, and the familiar anti-government argument that this is a step down that slippery slope of increased state control (members of the Lee family are well known in Republican circles, having served in various elective and appointed positions). What Nelson doesn’t mention in the letter is the family’s Lee Ranch Coal Mine, a major production mine that has made the already well-to-do family a lot of money, and the fact that the uranium that lies beneath the former Gulf Oil Mine, a mile from the ranch, extends for miles under the ranch. The Lee family certainly has a vested interest in avoiding any “burdens” on their land. However, the fact that much of the private land surrounding Mount Taylor is classified “noncontributing”, meaning it is land that has already been developed and adds nothing of value to Mount Taylor as an historical property, negates the “burden” claims.

The concerns of Cebolleta Land Grant are harder to parse. Members of the land grant also raised the issue of “private property” at the public meetings: although all the proposed uranium exploration or development on the grant is outside the TCP designation and not subject to its regulations, the grant’s common lands were classified as “contributing” within the TCP: activities on the land will be subject to more oversight but the land remains under the ownership of the grant. Calling the TCP designation a “land grab,” as some members did, is understandable within the context of the dispossession of many legitimate Spanish and Mexican land grants, but acceding to the “private property” argument complicates the meaning of “common.” The Marquez area of the land grant saw extensive mining and contamination during the 1970s and 80s uranium boom; the TCP “burden” of oversight and analysis of proposed new mining activity could be seen as a means of ensuring better protection of the common lands and community. The legal action taken by the land grant puts it squarely in the camp of the industries that want to exploit the Grants uranium belt for profit, regardless of the consequences.

The objections to this designation are reminiscent of many other cases where increased oversight is perceived as anathema to growth and development. On the national level we have, of course, the struggle to put in place regulatory oversight of the financial institutions that brought us to the brink of a depression. Locally, as we’ve written about in La Jicarita, the water brokers who want freedom to move water out of its area of origin fought the establishment of the Public Welfare Advisory Board in Taos County to review and evaluate potential water transfers from the county. Neither the Advisory Board nor the tribes have veto power over transfers or development, but when it comes to oversight certain vested interests use emotionally laden and politically expedient arguments like “private property” to promote their neo-liberal agenda.

The pueblos hope the Supreme Court will render a ruling by the end of the year, but it’s more likely to happen early in 2013. La Jicarita will continue to follow the issue.

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