From the top of Mount Taylor, mountains, valleys and mesas unfold into the hazy blue distance; on clear days, you can see all the way to Arizona. The Navajo call the 11,301-foot-tall peak Tsoodzil, and say it marks one of the four directional boundaries of their spiritual world. The Acoma, who call it Kaweshtima, believe it was created by two sisters who also gave life to plants and animals; it's still home to beings such as Shakak, the Spirit of Winter and the North. To the Zuni, the mountain is Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalannee.
"People may think it's just a physical entity, that it sits there, and Zunis or Acomas or others, they only go there sometimes," says Jim Enote, executive director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni. "But people only go to Mecca once in their life, or Mount Sinai once in their life, or the Vatican once in their life."
The mountain is sacred, he says, home to shrines and a place for gathering certain plants and minerals. "It is extremely important, and the people who go to Mount Taylor, to Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalanee, are doing so to help maintain an entire cosmological process," he says. "They are doing it for the benefit of all humanity."
So, two years ago, the Zuni joined the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, Arizona's Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation in asking the state of New Mexico to protect this hodgepodge of federal, state and private lands as a traditional cultural property.
The tribes were seeking official acknowledgement of their stake in the development of their sacred lands, particularly when it comes to the state's authority to issue uranium-mining permits. The uranium boom supported Grants and Milan from the 1950s through the 1980s, but it also left a legacy of contaminated waters and sickened workers. And the mills have proven particularly problematic: Despite more than two decades of cleanup work, contamination from the Homestake Mining Company mill site in Milan, just west of Grants, has spread to five aquifers.
The TCP designation seemed like the best way to protect the mountain because it doesn't restrict public access, says Theresa Pasqual, historic preservation officer for Acoma Pueblo, the lead sponsor. The mountain remains open for everything from grazing and wood-gathering to hiking, snowmobiling and mountain biking. Under the TCP designation, the state's Historic Preservation Division -- and its mining division -- are required to review permit requests for development on Mount Taylor. It also requires that developers consult with tribes during the permitting process. It does not, however, afford tribes veto power over projects. Final decision-making remains with the state and the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees most of the mountain's acreage. Under the law, TCPs -- or any other protected property, including archaeological sites or historical buildings -- can even be destroyed if development is in the public's best interest. Pasqual says that the tribes chose this option knowing full well that it didn't guarantee protection.
Even so, the proposal didn't sit right with many local landowners. It violates private property rights, says Joy Burns, whose family has been running cattle on Mount Taylor for generations. Today, her family's Elkins Ranch spreads across some 16,000 acres on the east side of the mountain, right below the summit --smack-dab within the TCP's boundaries. "If I file the necessary papers and get the necessary permits, I don't think that any group should be able to tell us about my property," she says. The issue of uranium mining aside, she fears the designation will affect her family's ability to log or hunt on their own lands. It's not fair, she says.
Indeed, as the process moved along, it started rumors of a "land grab." Tempers began to simmer. Then, into the midst of this growing furor, stepped a Christian self-help author who promotes energy development in the name of the Lord.