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Sacred ground? Citing significant views, tribe pushes back against solar plant

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Posted: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 2:03 pm

A fisherman lies in the foothills of the western Arizona’s Plomosa Mountains, an image scraped into desert soil by prehistoric Native Americans and protected from tourists’ tennis shoes by a Bureau of Land Management fence.

The Bouse Fisherman Intaglio is said to represent Kumastamo, a god who thrust his spear into the ground to make the Colorado River flow.

For centuries, members of Native American tribes along the river have had a spiritual connection to the La Posa Plain, which unravels across the bleak desert toward distant mountains. Dig a hole and you’re likely to find prehistoric artifacts.

“It can be as small as stone flakes to make a stone tool or as big as a village site,” said John Bathke, historic preservation officer for the Quechan Indian Tribe. “There were many tribes that came here to trade, live, sing, worship.”

The undisturbed landscape stretching between mountains, known as a viewshed, is as precious to tribes as the fisherman itself. According to the BLM, seven of 18 viewsheds on or around La Posa Plain are sacred to various tribes.

But unlike the fisherman, sacred viewsheds aren’t protected.

By this time next year, a 653-foot solar tower – an industrial pipe taller than the Washington Monument – will rise from La Posa Plain if the Quartzsite Solar Energy Project earns BLM approval this summer. The top of the tower would be visible from Bouse Fisherman Intaglio and in other sacred viewsheds.

“You’re looking at having this alien structure dropped down in the middle of our traditional spiritual area,” Bathke said.

Solar plants and wind farms are spreading quickly throughout the American Southwest; so far in Arizona, the BLM has identified more than 237,000 acres of public land as optimal for renewable energy developments.

While there are laws that can preserve sites with Native American artifacts, none are devoted to protecting viewsheds. Tribes have little power to halt or stop developments on land they don’t own and are only consulted by the BLM about their connection to a potential project’s land, be it historical or spiritual.

But to Bathke and his tribe, whose reservation lies along the Colorado River near Yuma, that consultation is little more than a formality.

“Many of us – not just Quechans – feel like our concerns aren’t being taken seriously,” Bathke said.

By the time applications for renewable energy developments go through BLM and get to the tribes, they’ve become massive binders – or sets of binders – that include environmental impact statements. Tribes are asked to read through these 500-page studies and respond with comments within 30 days.

“It took two years for them to develop it. How are we supposed to respond in a month?” Bathke said.

After watching the federal government go forward with a series of wind farms and solar plants that various tribes of the Southwest opposed, the Quechans are beginning to fight back, calling for a more meaningful consultation process – one that better acknowledges their religious beliefs.

“We always have to justify our spiritual experience,” Bathke said. “What if someone wanted to put solar panels on the Vatican? Would that be acceptable?”

‘Sensitive viewers’

Bathke’s office is in a trailer atop a hill on the Quechan reservation, close to the police station and other government buildings. The fluorescent-lit room, lined with maps, doesn’t have enough shelf space for all of the binders with proposals to review.

The Quartsize Solar Energy Project on La Posa Plain is one of three major solar developments that the Quechans currently oppose.

For Bathke, the biggest irony is that Native Americans actually support renewable energy initiatives.

“Renewables are in agreement with a lot of traditional Native American values, such as developing a responsible relationship with the earth,” Bathke said. “But ideally we’d like to see projects on disturbed land that doesn’t disrupt traditional viewsheds.”

Most developers look first at land that has already been dug up, built on or used for agriculture. But such land only accounts for a fraction of Arizona’s desert.

“It’s kind of like the land rush of the 1800s,” Bathke said. “If we let one in and then the next, soon this area will just be one big solar panel.”

Like all environmental impact statements, the document for the Quartzite project includes reports of cultural resources found by archaeologists. These resources include anything associated with history or prehistory, from artifacts indicating significant historical events to sacred or religious sites.

The statement also includes a list of viewsheds in the project area and “sensitive viewers” – groups that would be affected by a change in a viewshed.

As a result of consultation with tribes, the environmental impact statementexpanded the distance for consideration of potential harm to views from three miles to 25.

Of the 18 notable viewsheds surrounding the project, tribes are listed as sensitive viewers for seven of them, including the view from the Bouse Fisherman Intaglio.

The final environmental impact statement on the Quartzsite project is expected to be released this summer, with a decision to follow in short order.

Cultural geography

Contact with the Quechans was first recorded in the late 1700s by Spanish explorers. The tribe lived and traded near the Colorado River and fought against the U.S. in the Yuma War of the 1850s.

The word “colonization” comes up often in conversation with Bathke and Lorey Cachora, a consultant to the culture committee that advises the Quechan Tribal Council.

“If you have a cultural site, that’s one thing that wasn’t taken away from you in the way of law,” Cachora said. “You have your sacredness, and that’s yours.”

In response to the tribes’ frustrations over consultation, the BLM has asked them to draw maps of their sacred landmarks. Many have resisted.

“Maps have historically been used against the tribes,” Bathke said. That applies to public information as well as battles over territory, he said; if these maps were to be released, sacred sites could become tourist destinations.

While most of the battles over viewsheds play out in the Southwest, the flat, hot heart of renewable energy country, disputes between tribes and the federal government can happen anywhere, said Steven Moore, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund in Colorado.

“When you’ve got a landscape with 10,000 years of occupation, there is always the potential for disturbing archaeological sites,” Moore said.

The problem stems, in part, from BLM’s hurry to get projects approved, Moore said. Tribes may be more willing to help the federal government and provide critical information about their cultural geography if the BLM spent more time building up a relationship of trust and respect.

“These conversations between tribes and the BLM need to occur over a period of years, not months,” he said. “Hit-and-run conversation does not play well with the tribes.”

The BLM view

Connie Stone, an archaeologist with the BLM in Arizona, couldn’t agree more that tribes and the agency need to make communication an ongoing process.

“We need to figure out a better way to do this,” she said. “There has to be some level of trust.”

However, she said that maps – or any sort of deeper information about the viewsheds that tribes want to protect – would be exponentially more useful in the application and planning process.

“For good reason, they might not want to disclose that to us. But in order to do a good environmental analysis and to find ways to mitigate potentially bad effects, we need that information,” said Stone, who works in BLM Arizona’s Renewable Energy Coordination Office, another office with binders stacked to the ceiling.

“Is the view only important when looking out from a peak? Or is to a peak? Or between peaks?” she said.

The Quechans maintain that it’s impossible to encompass a tribe’s culture or spirituality with a pin on a map.

“People outside this area view the desert as a dry wasteland,” Bathke said. “When you go out there, there’s cultural material everywhere.”

In a statement to Cronkite News Service, the Quechan Tribal Council explained what it ultimately wants from BLM: to be approached much earlier in the application process and “to not be treated as an afterthought,” as well as the opportunity to review with the federal government how current consultation laws are being implemented.

In response, Stone said her office has examined ways to bring the tribes in before the environmental impact study begins.

As for the second request, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency, has made it a 2012 priority to develop policy and guidance to deal with cultural landscape issues.

Stone said she would like to see more conversations between officials on the level above her and Bathke – among BLM managers and tribal councils. Archaeologists are the first point of contact for tribes, but they aren’t trained in diplomacy.

“I do wish we had professional help to handle dispute resolutions. You know, bring in Hillary Clinton or something,” said Stone, laughing. “Some days I feel like, am I an architect or an attorney?”

While Bathke and Stone said they respect each other’s work, Bathke characterizes the Quechan-BLM relationship as a “David and Goliath-in-the-desert kind of fight.”

Stone says the Quechans live up to their heritage.

“They were warriors traditionally” she said. “In a way, I think they’re warriors again.”

Changing dynamics

The Quartzsite project isn’t the first solar farm to be opposed by Native Americans in the Southwest.

In November 2011, construction halted at the Genesis Solar Power Project, a $1 billion plant near Blythe, Calif., when workers dug up grinding stones, indicating the area may have been used for cremation in ancient times. The National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires federal agencies to return these artifacts to the proper tribe, which can often delay a project.

Tribes opposing further development of the project included the Quechan, Fort Mojave, Agua Caliente, Torres Martinez, Soboba and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.

The Quechans have also opposed the Ocotillo Express Wind Project, a site located near the bottom of a California mountain that figures in the Quechan creation story. Construction hasn’t begun, but the Quechans predict that developers will find artifacts there too.

Despite their issues with the consultation process, the Quechans have won a few battles with the federal government.

In 2010, the Quechans were granted an injunction against the Department of the Interior in a case that found that the BLM hadn’t properly consulted the tribe on an Imperial Valley solar project.

Meaningful consultation was a requirement for that project under Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act, which requires that the government go through a review process for all projects eligible for or listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Sara Bronin, director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Law at the University of Connecticut School of Law, teaches the case in her classes. Although today’s consultation processes are still flawed, she said, the 2010 case forced the federal government to involve tribes in decision-making, changing the dynamic of government-to-government relationships.

“This is an emerging and important area of law. As we try and build more large scale projects in rural areas, we’re going to keep hitting up against the issue,” Bronin said. “We’re going to, as a nation, grapple with how we want to solve it.”

The National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the National Historic Preservation Act don’t outright protect sacred viewsheds or lands, but they are powerful tools in delaying projects or changing the development plans to lessen cultural impact.

“These laws don’t necessarily have the means to stop development, but they’re fairly effective mitigation tools,” she said.

Environmentalists and tribes have also formed a unique partnership in fighting some of these high-impact projects. The Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Protection Act can be used to delay or halt projects when development has the potential to damage wildlife or ecosystems.

For example, biologists believe that at the Genesis construction zone near Blythe repellents used to push animals away from the area weakened the immune systems of kit foxes, contributing to the outbreak of canine distemper and the death of more than eight foxes.

“We can have solar energy, we can have wind energy and we can still respect the cultural and natural values of the land,” said Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter. “Not everything translates easily into an environmental impact statement. If a tribe is saying that this is really significant and will harm their cultural values, the federal government needs to listen to them.”

© 2015 Green Valley News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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