This year marks the 22nd annual list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. Since 1988, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has used this list as a powerful alarm to raise awareness of the serious threats facing the nation’s greatest treasures. It has become one of the most effective tools in the fight to save the country’s irreplaceable architectural, cultural and natural heritage. In the days leading up to and during the National Preservation Trust’s Nashville Conference, Nashville Past And Present will highlight the historic buildings, structures and places on this years most endangered list.
Located in the southwestern corner of New Mexico’s San Mateo Mountains, midway between Albuquerque and Gallup, Mount Taylor, with an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet, is a startlingly beautiful, sacred place. Visible from up to 100 miles away, the mountain has been a pilgrimage site for as many as 30 Native American tribes, with special significance for the Acoma people. Centuries before the mountain was named for President Zachary Taylor, it was known to the Acoma as Kaweshtima, or “place of snow.” Mount Taylor is rooted in Acoma’s history and traditions and is closely aligned with the tribe’s cultural identity.
Mount Taylor is approximately 50 miles from Acoma Sky City, a 367-foot tall mesa that has been the home of the Acoma people for nearly 1,000 years, and is today a National Trust Historic Site. The mountain sits atop one of the richest known reserves of uranium ore in the country: the Grants Uranium Belt. This reserve has already spawned two uranium-mining booms in the area, one in the 1950s and another in the 1970s. Current high demand for the ore has resulted in a renewed interest in mining the uranium deposits beneath Mount Taylor on federal, state and private lands, as well as on other public and private lands in the area. The New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division continues to receive proposals for exploration, mining and milling operations for Mount Taylor.
Much of the area is governed by the 1872 Mining Law, which permits mining regardless of its impact on cultural or natural resources, meaning that the U.S. Forest Service and other federal land management agencies lack the authority to deny mining applications, even if the application would adversely affect those resources. In addition to threats posed to the mountain itself, uranium mining may contaminate or impair Acoma’s primary water source, the Rio San Jose. The Acoma people view the Rio San Jose as both the key to their physical survival and the cultural lifeblood of their community.
On June 5, 2009, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee voted unanimously to protect the cultural resources of Mount Taylor. The permanent listing as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) in New Mexico’s State Register of Cultural Properties will include more than the summit and slopes of the mountain because the pueblos and tribes believe that this cultural landscape also includes many of the mesas and valleys that surround it. The U.S. Forest Service has also determined that Mount Taylor is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. The listing ends for now the debate between the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, the Hopi Tribe and Navajo Nation who want to ensure their legitimate right to consultation over activities that could harm the mountain, and landowners who are concerned about preserving their rights to use private property without interference. In crafting the nomination, the tribes responded to the concerns expressed by some private property owners by designating all private property within the boundaries of the TCP as non-contributing thereby excluding those properties from the protections of the TCP listing.
Today Mt Taylor is still used for a variety of cultural practices and holds value for several area tribes. Currently, the mountain is under threat from exploration and proposals for uranium mining, which, if allowed to proceed, would have a devastating impact on cherished cultural resources, including pilgrimage trails, shrines, and archeological sites.