Written by Ti Hays
Last Friday, in a highly anticipated decision, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee unanimously voted to list Mount Taylor on the State Register of Cultural Properties. The decision ends for now a debate over Mount Taylor’s future that has divided the community of Grants and generated passionate appeals from those both for and against the designation.
When the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation first nominated Mount Taylor to the state register in 2008, many people in northern New Mexico worried that the tribes would use the listing to halt development on the mountain. Others feared that the tribes had an even grander scheme in mind: the wholesale transfer of public and private property to tribal ownership.
In reality, none of those concerns had any basis in fact. What moved the tribes to submit the nomination was a legitimate desire to be consulted over activities that could harm or destroy one or more of the (literally) hundreds of thousands of cultural sites on Mount Taylor—a desire shared by all people who attach traditional cultural significance to a place or object.
The Committee's landmark decision is notable for several reasons. First, by virtue of the listing, Mount Taylor becomes one of the largest, if not the largest, properties ever listed in a state or national register. At 344,729 acres, the designation includes not only the summit and slopes of the mountain, but also its principal mesas: San Mateo, Jesus, La Jara, Horace, Chivato and Bibo. Each of these mesas constitutes a "guardian peak" to which each tribe attaches varying degrees of cultural significance.
Second, the Committee specifically addressed the concerns of private property owners, many of whom opposed the nomination, by allowing them to essentially "opt-out" of the designation. The Committee was careful to explain, however, that the decision to exclude private property, which makes up less than one fourth of the area within the boundaries of the designation, in no way affects the overall historic integrity of the mountain.
"The State Register nomination that was approved today clearly establishes this landscape as a Traditional Cultural Property worthy of protection and preservation" said Katherine Slick, State Historic Preservation Officer and director of the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division. "At the same time, the tribes have established in their nomination that private landholdings on the mountain no longer contribute to the elements that give Mount Taylor its cultural significance, and that the private property does not need to be afforded the protections provided by a State Register listing."
Finally, and most importantly, the listing secures to the tribes the right to consult with state agencies over projects on the mountain that require some form of state approval.
Whether the Committee will have the final say on the matter remains to be seen. Opponents of the designation have already signaled their intention to file a lawsuit challenging the decision. Should this happen, Mount Taylor may very well head down the long and uncertain path through the court system recently taken by another sacred mountain in Arizona—the San Francisco Peaks.
But for now, the mountain enjoys the protection of the state register. And the tribes that worked so tirelessly over the past two years to win this decision deserve an immense amount of credit, both for their willingness to disclose and discuss why Mount Taylor is important to them, and for their courage in the face of significant opposition.
Ti Hays is the Public Lands Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.