U.S. Forest Service report outlines plan for better protection of Native American sacred sites

Tribes say more meaningful collaboration needed

A decision by the U.S. Forest Service to allow snowmaking with reclaimed water at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area soured the agency’s relationship with Native Americans

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — With more than 3,000 miles of contiguous border with American Indian and Alaska Native-owned lands, the U.S. Forest Service wants to work more closely with tribal governments in the protection, respectful interpretation and appropriate access to Indian sacred sites.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary John Vilsack this month released a new report recommending that the agency should take steps to strengthen the partnerships between the agency, tribal governments, and American Indian and Alaska Native communities to help preserve America’s rich native traditions.

According to the report, many tribes have historically managed their forests well and in ways the Forest Service hopes to emulate: “Tribal land management is a testament to the Tribal land ethic, an ethic rooted in traditions, stories, and cultures. Sacred sites … are important facets of that land ethic and a common bond between us,” the report states. The report and related documents are online at this Forest Service website.

“American Indian and Alaska Native values and culture have made our nation rich in spirit and deserve to be honored and respected,” Vilsack said. “By honoring and protecting sacred sites on national forests and grasslands, we foster improved tribal relationships and a better understanding of native people’s deep reverence for natural resources and contributions to society.”

As the report was being developed, federal officials learned that Native Americans and Forest Service land managers share many of the same concerns about sacred site protection. And while there have been examples of successful partnerships, the review team also discovered that there were inconsistencies in the agency’s consultative and collaborative processes, which are sometimes ineffective when done in ways that Tribes do not consider meaningful.

The review process also showed that land managers don’t always use the discretion they have to the benefit of tribes, and that sacred site issues are not always weighed equally with competing uses of national forest system lands, especially when decision-makers narrowly interpret the executive order that outlines sacred site protection.

Specific examples cited during the review process included a Forest Service decision to allow the use of reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area in the San Francisco Peaks — a sacred site for many Native Americans in the Southwest. During the listening sessions, many Native Americans urged the Forest Service to reverse that decision.

“We recognize that this decision has had profound impacts on the agency’s relationships with many AI/AN people and communities, but we hope this review and the changes that will result from it will begin to address some of the concerns we heard,” the report stated.

Concerns were also expressed about the agency’s authorization of recreational activities, including rock climbing, interpretation, outfitting and guiding, and off-highway vehicle use.

In some cases, forest service management decisions and actions, as well as the activities of third parties have led to damage,destruction,and desecration of sacred sites — which could be remediated with consistent on-the- ground application of currently available tools.

Sacred sites are currently defined by an executive order signed in 1996, which focuses on specific sites and Indian religion. The report recommends that the department take a broader view by also considering cultural and landscape perspectives.

“I applaud the Forest Service for initiating and completing the sacred sites report,” said Harris Sherman, Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment. “It is a very important step in broadening our understanding and protection of sacred sites, and building on relationships with Native America Communities.”

The report is a culmination of more than 100 meetings with tribal members and agency employee surveys. Among the recommendations is for Forest Service employees to receive training about tribal history, law and cultural sensitivities.

Recommendations include:

  • Confer with traditional practitioners and communities with knowledge and interests in sacred sites and resource protection.
  • Update agency policy to ensure consultation on sacred sites is conducted pursuant to existing law.
  • Develop a joint tribal-agency partnership guide.
  • Provide tribes consistent advance notice of nationwide consultation opportunities.
    Use provisions of the agency’s new planning rule to ensure protection of sacred sites is considered in forest and grassland management.
  • Promote cooperative law enforcement agreements with tribal police and conservation departments to enforce cultural laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

One thought on “U.S. Forest Service report outlines plan for better protection of Native American sacred sites

  1. This is great news and one that makes good fundamental sense on how we should look after our public lands and also work with Native Americans that have been on this same land for thousands of years. Hopefully we can help preserve Sacred Sites for future generations.

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