Interior Dept. vows to protect sacred Indian lands

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Interior to protect sacred Indian lands.

3/21/02

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The Bush administration is expected to announce Wednesday that it will renew a Clinton-era initiative to protect public lands considered sacred to American Indians.

Neal McCaleb, the Interior Department's assistant secretary of Indian affairs, will appoint a task force to oversee the department's management of those public lands, such as Wyoming's Devils Tower and Montana's Weatherman Draw, which include sacred Indian sites.

Pressure is mounting both in Washington and in Western states to open public lands for logging, grazing, mining, and particularly drilling for oil and natural gas.

As demand for access to public land has increased, so has demand from Indian tribes wanting to protect lands they consider sacred.



Wednesday's announcement will be made before a meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, which is gathering in Washington, D.C., for a forum on how the federal government is managing sacred lands.

According to aides at the Interior Department, Jim Pace, director of the Office of American Indian Trust, will speak at Wednesday's meeting.

The Interior Department move essentially reinvigorates a 1996 executive order signed by then-President Clinton which directed federal agencies to accommodate access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites.

That Clinton order was intended to include parts of the natural environment, including lakes, mountains, springs and rivers, as well as those things built by Indians, such as medicine wheels, sweat lodges and stone cairns.

Last year, representatives of Plains and Rocky Mountains Indian tribes descended on Congress to protest the permitting of a wildcat oil well in Weatherman Draw, a valley in southern Montana that is home to a collection of ancient rock art and also is the centuries-old site for meditation and peace talks.

Indians refer to that valley, which is overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, as the Valley of the Chiefs. However, the valley is also thought to have a lucrative pool of oil below its surface.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., ranking Democrat on the House Resources Committee, likened drilling in the valley to erecting an oil rig in the Sistine Chapel. Rahall has since said he will introduce legislation written to protect sacred Indian sites from activities, such as oil drilling, that would disturb sacred Indian rituals or tradition.

Although much of the focus lately has been on the exploitation of public land for energy resources, sacred Indian lands have been disturbed in the past by far more benign activities.

In Arizona, plans by the University of Arizona to build a $60 million telescope on Mount Graham, in the Coronado National Forest, saw a series of legal challenges from San Carlos Apache tribal members seeking to protect land holy to them.

In Wyoming, the National Park Service began closing 867-foot Devils Tower to climbers at sensitive times after Indians complained that the climbers were disturbing religious activities. And in New Mexico, the Forest Service decided against expanding a ski area because it would have meant going into a mountain basin that was culturally significant to Pueblo Indians.
 


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