SANTA FE, N.M.—American Indian tribes have appealed to a committee to protect their sacred mountain, considered one of the most endangered historical landscapes in the country, as private landowners defended their property rights and public access to Mount Taylor.

The state Cultural Properties Review Committee on Friday heard from both sides on whether to place Mount Taylor on the State Register of Cultural Properties list.

The committee plans to vote on the designation June 5. Should the nomination fail, its supporters would have to wait five years before trying again.

More than half the size of Rhode Island, the protected area would include 439,000 acres, or 686 square miles, around the 11,301-foot summit of the western New Mexico mountain and five mesas surrounding it.

Last month, Mount Taylor was listed as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 most endangered historic places in America for 2009.

Acoma Pueblo Lt. Gov. Mark Thompson acknowledged the mountain is no longer pristine, but said the landmark remains important to tribes.

"Although private boundaries are now marked by fences, power lines transverse the mountain and radio towers stand near the summit, those changes do not alter the spiritual connection to the sacred trails, to places of significance and the continuation of our cultural practices," he told the committee.

Navajo Nation Vice President Ben Shelly choked up with emotion as he explained that Navajos consider the animals, grass, water and trees on the mountain as people. Tribal members can't live without them, he said.

"That's what we're protecting. We don't want that destroyed," he said.

Zuni Gov. Norman Cooeyate said his tribal members collect medicinal herbs, other plants, minerals and feathers from Mount Taylor to use in ceremonies, and that the mountain has figured in the tribe's cultural landscape for more than 300 years.

Pilgrimages by tribal members on the mountain have diminished in recent years, Cooeyate said.

"Old trails still exist but now cross private land, making such treks difficult and dangerous," he said.

Private landowners also worry about access to the mountain, as well as possible restrictions on their property rights.

The proposal before the committee would exempt private property within the protected area, but questions remain about how that would work and where the boundaries are located.

State Cultural Affairs Secretary Stuart Ashman criticized the proposal to add the mountain to the registry, saying the language does not clearly exempt private property.

"The private landowners are concerned that this designation, which they oppose, will bring additional constraints, legal hurdles and further obstructions to their ability to use their private lands in a manner of their choosing," he said.

Ashman proposed clarifying some language, creating a better map of boundaries, giving landowners and land grantees letters certifying they are exempt from the designation and stating there will be no restrictions on outdoor activities or development on private property.

"The overwhelming objections of so many constituents cannot and should not be ignored," Ashman said.

Opponents to the listing—who wore green stickers reading "Mount Taylor: It's our mountain too!"—insisted they will face interference from the state and the tribes because of the designation.

Marron Lee Nelson, whose family owns Lee Ranch, the largest piece of private property on Mount Taylor, said her family cares about the mountain just as the tribes do.

"We are the stewards of the land and we do resent being treated like we've done something nefarious to Mount Taylor," she said.

The issue has divided the community along racial lines, some speakers said.

"I have never once seen so much hatred for the Native Americans, this has caused so much hatred in our town," said Jessie Carwile, who said racial tensions would increase if the committee adds Mount Taylor to the Cultural Properties list.

Others said the designation would affect economic development in the region, which is known for its uranium deposits.

"What this is really all about is uranium mining," said Marita Noon, executive director for Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy.

But several uranium mining company representatives said it shouldn't be about uranium, since federal and state procedures already exist to protect Mount Taylor's natural and cultural resources.

Star Gonzales, a Grants resident and director of the Cibola Communities Economic Development Foundation, said the designation will hamper other economic development efforts that depend on mountain resources.

"We desperately need jobs in the area, and if we put another layer of constraint to the resources on the mountain and our surrounding community, then that will impact our future development for our children," she said. (emphasis mine...SB)