Four federal government departments have signed a five-year agreement to work together to improve the protection of Indian sacred sites on federal lands and tribal access to them.
The departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy, and Interior signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) December 6 with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation “to improve the protection of Indian sacred sites and tribal access to them through enhanced and improved interdepartmental coordination and collaboration,” reads the document.
The MOU was signed in conjunction with the release of a major report from the Agriculture Department’s Office of Tribal Relations and the Forest Service, called “USDA Policy and Procedures Review and Recommendations: Indian Sacred Sites.” The study was ordered by Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack in 2010 to find out how the department could do a better job of protecting American Indian and Alaska Native sacred sites while allowing the National Forest Service to fulfill its mission of managing public lands in national forests and grasslands.
“American Indian and Alaska Native values and culture have made our nation rich in spirit and deserve to be honored and respected,” Vilsack said in a press release announcing the report. “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 research involved more than 50 listening sessions throughout Indian country and Alaska Native villages with tribal leaders, culture-keepers, traditional practitioners, unaffiliated Native descendants and the general public. Three broad themes emerged: there are inconsistencies in the Forest Service’s consultation and collaboration processes; sacred sites are not weighed equally with the Forest Service’s competing uses (such as mining).
Finally, some on-the-ground actions by the Forest Service and third parties have destroyed or damaged sacred sites.
The Native groups also expressed many concerns about the negative impacts that Forest Service-approved recreational use has on sacred sites. They were especially unhappy with the decision to allow the use of recycled sewage for artificial snow at a ski area in the sacred San Francisco Peaks, a decision that has generated nearly a decade of legal challenges and ongoing protests. Many people “strongly urged the agency to reverse this decision,” the report says. “We recognize that this decision has had profound impacts on the agency’s relationships with many AI/AN people and communities but we hope this review and the change that will result from it will begin to address some of the concerns we heard.”
The MOU will create a training program to educate federal staff on the existing legal protections for access to and protection of sacred sites and to improve consultation and collaboration with Indian tribes, tribal leaders, and spiritual leaders; develop and implement best practices for managing sacred sites; create a website; launch an effort to educate the public about the importance of maintaining the integrity of sacred sites as well as a mechanism to protect the confidentiality of information about sacred sites that is not meant for public consumption.
The report includes reference to and a copy of the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, but the MOU does not require the departments to abide by the international Declaration’s mandate for Indigenous Peoples to provide “free, prior and informed consent” before nation-states impact their lands. “Protection of AI/AN sacred sites and accommodation of a tribe’s particular use of a sacred site does not entail complete exclusion of other uses,” the report says. “Sacred sites must be considered in the context of other uses. The recommendations do not conflict with the agency’s statutory mandate to manage for multiple uses of the NFS under the Multiple Use-Sustained Yield Act.” Decision-making authority will remain with the federal government. “The Forest Service retains and cannot divest itself of decision making authority for land management actions on the NFS,” the report says.
Other federal agencies may opt into the agreement, which will remain in effect until December 31, 2017, but may be extended by agreement among the parties.