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Tribe seeks its key peak

  Tohono O'odham Indians have long gazed up at the soaring tower of Baboquivari Peak, southwest of Tucson, Ariz., with mingled reverence and consternation.

They have never accepted a 1917 boundary survey that placed the east side of the tribe's most sacred mountain on federal land, outside their main reservation. Now, the tribe hopes the dispute will be resolved when Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, introduces legislation in Congress, perhaps this summer, to repatriate the entire 7,734-foot mountain. Lots of people in southern Arizona are sympathetic. They see the transfer of the peak's east half along with the 2,065-acre Baboquivari Peak Wilderness Area as a fitting restoration.

But nervousness has also broken out, particularly among non-Indian environmentalists and rock-climbers, who worry that the O'odham could restrict access to or weaken conservation there.

Climbers such as Jason Mullins, owner of Tucson's Rocks & Ropes climbing gym, fear the tribe would ban the sport from "Babo's' 1,000-foot upper pillar - a regional mecca that was one of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas' favorite climbs. At the same time, some environmentalists term "too vague" the requirements in the draft bill that the tribe adhere to the same environmental rules the Bureau of Land Management follows now.

Critics say the tribe's lands are in deplorable shape from overgrazing, and they fear the tribe might allow cattle on slopes where a rare jaguar was photographed in 1996, and where the endangered Kearny blue star plant grows.

"I haven't heard them making any commitments not to graze, and that's not good," says Dale Turner of the Sky Island Alliance in Tucson.

Tribal leaders dismiss such anxieties and look forward to the day when they reclaim the mountain where their creator, I'itoi, resides in a cave. "I don't think grazing is the correct issue," declares Frances Manuel of the Tohono O'odham Legislative Council. "The important thing is God gave us this mountain, all of it, and we should be able to protect it ourselves."

*Mark Muro