Tribal groups have fought for years over protection of sacred sites on Forest Service land.
One of the biggest battles was at a northern Arizona ski area, where recycled wastewater was used to make snow on a sacred mountain. Another was in Nevada, where a sacred rock was being used for recreational climbing.
Forest Service officials recently decided to get fresh input from tribal groups as they consider how those decisions are made. John Autrey of the Tongass National Forest Tribal Relations Program says meetings are already taking place.
“We understand that it’s critical to incorporate Alaska Native perspectives and values and to mutually determine what guidelines and policies we can both live with,” Autrey says.
Listening sessions, here and nationwide, began in November and will continue for several months. Autry, who’s based in Ketchikan, says recommendations will be developed, then go back to tribal leaders before any decisions are made. The effort will take about a year.
The process for protecting and managing sacred sites is somewhat different in Alaska than for the Lower 48.
Steve Kessler, a Forest Service official based in Anchorage, says that’s due to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
“Some of the key areas of historical and cemetery-type interests for the tribes have been actually set aside through withdrawals, through selection and conveyance to the regional corporations” Kessler says. “And so to some degree there may be less of a concern in Alaska than in the rest of the country.”
National Forest Service leaders say any policy changes must allow the agency to fulfill its various missions. Those include natural resources development and recreation.
The Forest Service has reviewed its sacred sites policies before. Autrey says a similar process six years ago led to changes in Tongass planning documents.
“Here in Southeast Alaska the recommendations we heard in 2004 were essentially responded to in standards and guidelines for sacred sites which were incorporated into the 2007 Tongass Land Management Plan revision,” Autrey says.
Prince of Wales Island and Angoon leaders have already been contacted. And meetings are planned with other groups in and near Southeast’s Tongass and Southcentral’s Chugach National Forests.
A four-member Alaska Tribal Leaders Committee is also part of the review. Neither of the Southeast members could be reached for comment for this report.
Kessler says the sacred sites process will include a variety of people. “It’s not just tribes that are necessarily the keepers of sacred sites. It’s clan leaders, it’s ceremonial leaders, it’s the other people who also often know about where these sacred sites are and who are the ones the Forest Service needs to be consulting with.”
The process is separate from Sealaska land-selection legislation. Bills in Congress proposed turning tens of thousands of acres of Tongass land over to the regional Native corporation. That includes a number of sacred sites.
Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau