Comments Open for Official USDA Draft Sacred Sites Report

Comments Open for Official USDA Draft Sacred Sites Report

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John Ahni Schertow
August 2, 2011
 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking for comments on its newly released Draft Report on Sacred Sites. Once finalized, the Report will determine the USDA’s policies and procedures for all sacred sites on public lands. The comment period for the draft report will be open until November 2011. Please see below for details and a copy of the Draft Report.

Under Executive Order No. 13007, the Forest Service, an agency of the USDA, is charged with the responsibility of accommodating access to and ceremonial use of sacred sites by religious practitioners; avoiding adverse effects on the physical integrity of such sacred sites; and, maintaining the confidentiality of Sacred Sites where appropriate.

Unfortunately, despite the Executive Order and other existing laws meant to protect traditional, cultural, and religious areas and uses, sacred sites are continually dismissed by the USDA and other government agencies, permitting companies like the Arizona Snowbowl to clear forested lands and endanger sacred sites–in this particular case, Doo’ko’oosliid, The San Fransisco Peaks. These laws include the Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA); and The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

Indeed, the basic religious freedoms for Indigenous Peoples in the US are continually suppressed and denied by every level of government–even by the courts, as Russel Means points out in his article, “American Indian Religious Freedom in Theory and Practice”. This is because decisions concerning indigenous rights often come down to a matter of personal judgment; and more often than not, those judgments are rooted in 19th century America.

More than anything, the USDA needs to shift away from that policy to one based on accommodation, accountability for all Indigenous (“Native American”) stakeholders, and unconditional recognition of their lands, basic rights and freedoms. If there is no practical accommodation or accountability than any policy aimed at protecting sacred sites can be nothing more than a cheap board game that Indigenous stakeholders are guaranteed to lose.

Fortunately, the current Draft report makes some notable progress in these areas. For instance, it recommends:

The Draft report also identifies a number of key understandings, for instance:

“To Native Americans, ‘special places’ are often sources of cultural, spiritual, sacrosanct connections to the land. For these reasons, conserving forests and grasslands is not a luxury; it is a necessity. Yet America’s forests today are threatened like never before. Climate change, catastrophic fires, diseases and pests, and the transformation of working forest lands to increasingly fragmented private parcels have all led to declining ecosystem health. All of these changes have enormous impacts to ecosystems and local economies. As the health, integrity, and connectedness of forests are threatened, so too are Native American Sacred Sites.”

It’s encouraging to see that recognition; however, as far as policies go, it won’t mean anything unless the USDA actually works with Indigenous Stakeholders and in their best interests. This, for example, includes taking steps to protect Doo’ko’oosliid, regardless of any commercial interests.

USDA Letter

Hello!

This is to inform you and the members of your organization that the U.S. Forest Service and USDA have released the official Draft Report to the Secretary regarding Sacred Sites policies and procedures on National Forest System land (attached). This report was developed based on what we heard at listening sessions all over the country, as well as letters, emails, and other input. We now seek your review and input on the recommendations for policy changes described in the Report. Please provide any input on this Draft Report you may have before November, 2011.

Specifically, we would like you to tell us:

Did we represent in the report your concerns, as well as your ideas for modified Sacred Sites policies and procedures?

Do you have ideas on how to enhance the recommendations in the report?

Please contact us at this email address, or contact any of the people listed below, for more information, for a hard copy of the report, or to set up a meeting to discuss the Draft Report’s recommendations. You may also visit http://www.fs.fed.us/spf/tribalrelations/sacredsites.shtml for more information.

For more information, contact:

Fred Clark, Forest Service Office of Tribal Relations, 202–205–1514

FOREST SERVICE REGIONAL TRIBAL RELATIONS PROGRAM MANAGERS

Missoula, MT Cheryl Vanderburg 406. 329.3348 – cvanderburg@fs.fed.us
Denver, CO Susan Johnson 303.275.5760 – sjohnson08@fs.fed.us
Albuquerque, NM Dan Meza 505. 842.3424 – dmeza@fs.fed.us
Ogden, UT Cheryl Vanderburg 406. 329.3348 – cvanderburg@fs.fed.us
Vallejo, CA Merv George, Jr. 707.562.8919 – mgeorge@fs.fed.us
Portland, OR Gary R. Harris 503. 808.2603 – grharris@fs.fed.us
Pineville, LA Alan Dorian 318.473.7177 – adorian@fs.fed.us
Milwaukee, WI Larry Heady 414.297.3777 – lheady@fs.fed.us
Juneau, AK Lillian Petershoare 907.586.7089 – lpetershoare@fs.fed.us

Comments should be sent to: tribalsacredsites@fs.fed.us

Hard copy comments should be sent to:

USDA Forest Service
Office of Tribal Relations
Attn: Ericka Luna
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20250–1160

Draft Report

Download Sacred Sites Draft Report (PDF)

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