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Know the West

Lawsuit may take what's holy

  When the Bighorn National Forest drew up a plan to bring more visitors to the centuries-old Medicine Wheel, a Native American sacred site in northern Wyoming, tribes organized to stop it (HCN, 5/26/97). And they succeeded.

Eight Plains tribes, known as the Medicine Wheel Coalition, worked with government officials to write a Historic Preservation Plan, hailed at the time as a model agreement "for the permanent protection of American Indian Holy Lands located upon public domain lands." In 1996, the plan closed a road and put new land-use rules on 18,000 acres of public land within sight of the Medicine Wheel.

Now, Wyoming Sawmills has brought a lawsuit in federal court in Cheyenne, Wyo., to overturn the agreement. The suit is financed by the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation.

"You're talking about restricting use of many thousands of acres of land that would otherwise be subject to multiple-use management," says Ernie Schmidt of Wyoming Sawmills. His lawyers say that the plan is unconstitutional because it asks the agency to favor Native American religion at the expense of logging and development. The tribes say the agreement simply protects religious freedoms.

"After many, many years, the government is finally coming around to the position that native, traditional religion is something that needs to be considered," says Jerry Flute of the Association on American Indian Affairs in South Dakota, adding that the lawsuit threatens this progress.

Locally, the management plan has enjoyed support, but that appears to be wavering. Big Horn County Commissioner Ray Peterson, who signed onto the plan for the county, now says, "My fear has always been that the Forest Service is giving the Native Americans a leg up - not just consulting them, but letting them make some decisions on what happens up there."

* Michael Milstein