USDA Wants to Expand Protection for American Indian ‘Sacred Places’ on Public Lands

By Susan Jones | December 10, 2012 | 5:11 AM EST

A view of the San Bernardino National Forest in Southern California. (AP Photo/Trust for Public Lands, Maria Grants)

( – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on Dec. 6 released a report that urges the U.S. Forest Service to work more closely with tribal governments in protecting, respectfully interpreting, and giving appropriate access to sites that are sacred to American Indians and Alaskan Natives.

"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."

The report provides Vilsack with information about how U.S. Forest Service is currently protecting American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) sacred sites on federal lands and how USDA and the Forest Service might improve the way those sacred sites are protected.

Among the recommendations is for U.S. Forest Service employees to receive training about tribal history, law, and cultural sensitivities.

The report also recommends expanding the definition of “sacred sites,” which now is limited by executive order to “specific, discrete, narrowly delineated locations” of “religious significance.”

That definition, the report says, “may be too narrow and inconsistent with the AI/AN view of sacredness.” The report said a “broader concept” of “sacred places” should be considered.

"It is our hope that the recommendations contained in this Final Report will lead to meaningful changes in the way AI/AN sacred sites are protected and accessed," the report says.

It is now up to the Agriculture Secretary to move forward with specific policy changes to address the report’s recommendations.

The report released last week is a response to Vilsack’s request in 2010 for the USDA’s Office of Tribal Relations and the USDA’s Forest Service to talk with American Indian and Alaska Native tribal leaders to find out how USDA can do a better job of accommodating and protecting AI/AN sacred sites while simultaneously pursuing the Forest Service’s multiple-use mission.

The appointed team conducted more than 100 meetings or conversations with tribal members; and it also asked for input from Forest Service employees.

‘Reaching a balance’

USDA’s U.S. Forest Service manages 193 million acres of forests and grasslands, which are visited by millions of Americans and foreign tourists -- "each of whom has a different relationship with the land and a different perspective on what activities are appropriate," the report said.

The Forest Service is required by law to administer the national forests for purposes of outdoor recreation, grazing, timber, watershed, and wildlife and fish purposes; to analyze the environmental impacts of its decisions; to protect threatened and endangered species; and to conduct research.

In doing so, the Forest Service is supposed to strike a balance between the public’s needs and desires and the need to protect sacred sites, manage sacred places, and provide for Tribal traditional and cultural practices, the report says.

“The protection of sacred sites must be a value we will strive to protect; it cannot be an afterthought or be less than our other values. When sacred sites protection is in conflict with other uses, Forest Service employees must be mindful and creative in reaching for balance."

The report also says: "Economic and recreational drivers are important in land management decision making, but not more or less important than sacred sites concerns. In the past, however, the Forest Service has not always thoroughly considered sacred sites concerns, balanced sacred sites concerns with other values or used its discretion in land management decisions to find creative ways of incorporating protections for sacred sites in its decisions."

‘These voices instruct us’

The report notes that the Forest Service has “fiduciary obligations” to tribes, even though “we know so little about AI/AN (American Indian/Alaskan Native) sacred sites as an agency.”

“It is through the voices of the AI/AN people that we are learning about and affirming the real importance of sacred sites; these voices instruct us."

The reporting team says it heard many concerns from the tribes about the Forest Service’s authorization of recreational activities, including rock climbing, interpretation, outfitting and guiding, and off-highway vehicle use.

“Specifically, we heard numerous concerns with the Forest Service’s decision to allow the use of reclaimed wastewater for creating artificial snow at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Area in the San Francisco Peaks from many who strongly urged the agency to reverse this decision.”

Native Americans consider the Peaks to be sacred ground, and they say the use of treated sewage to make snow is a desecration. So far, the federal courts have ruled against them.

The Forest Service owns the land where the resort is located.