By Barbara Gowan
Pueblo Indians describe it as “a mountain of life.” To the Acoma people, it is the “place of snow,” the source of life-giving water. It is the home of the Hopi spirit of the volcano. Navajo named it, Tsoodzil, or Blue Bead.
One of four sacred mountains, it marks the southern boundary of the traditional homeland of the Navajo tribe. The summit is a holy site of prayer and ceremonies. Medicine men gather herbs and soil on the slopes. For centuries, Mount Taylor has been a sacred place for Native American tribes in the Southwest. Today, it is a place in peril.
Mount Taylor, at an elevation of 11,300 feet, is visible from more than 100 miles away. Douglas fir, aspen, and piñon pine trees in the Cibola National Forest blanket the mountain. Spires of volcanic rock rise on the north slope. The peak is often snow-capped. But it is what lies underneath the mountain that threatens this site. Mount Taylor sits atop one of the richest uranium ore reserves in the country.
Uranium is a metal found in the layers of sandstone in the Four Corners area of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. The city of Grants, New Mexico, 20 miles from Mount Taylor, was once considered a uranium capital of the world. This element is radioactive. Its atoms can easily be made to release huge amounts of energy. A single pound of uranium contains about as much energy as 3 million pounds of coal. In nuclear power plants, uranium rods are used as fuel to produce energy.
Extracting the ore is a long and complicated process. For every two pounds of uranium, 998 pounds of radioactive waste is left over in piles and pits. Over time it can leak into the soil and underground water if the area is not reclaimed.
Uranium mining in New Mexico was a booming business from the 1950s to 1980s, but it took its toll on the people and the land. Exposure to radioactive dust and contaminated groundwater causes health problems. Indeed, there is a higher incidence of lung cancer and other serious illnesses in mining communities. Rocks tinged with the greenish hue of uranium ore blanket the landscape because cleanup of old mining activity has not been completed.
Mines on Mount Taylor were shuttered in 1990 due to the low price of uranium. Recently Canadian, Japanese, and U.S. companies have submitted permits to establish new mines even though current U.S. mines are operating at only one third of their capacity. The nearby city of Grants welcomes the opportunity to provide jobs and create business projects. Millions of dollars of tax revenues would benefit the entire state. But U.S. Forest Service officials acknowledge that the mines will have significant impact on archaeological sites and traditional Native activities. Mining may contaminate the water source for nearby Acoma Sky City, the oldest inhabited community in the United States. But an 1872 federal law permits mining regardless of its impact on cultural or natural resources.
In 2009, members of the Navajo Nation, Hopi tribe, and Zuni, Acoma, and Laguna Pueblos worked together with the state of New Mexico to obtain the special designation as a Traditional Cultural Property for 434,000 acres of Mount Taylor. The Native Americans felt this was the best way to protect their sacred mountain while still providing the public with access for wood gathering, hunting, hiking, and cattle grazing. This special status for Mount Taylor angered the mining companies, ranchers, and property owners, whose livelihoods depend on using this land. Court battles challenged the status with claims that the area was too large to be protected as a historic site. A state district court overturned the Traditional Cultural Property designation in 2011. The case is now in the state Supreme Court.
Mount Taylor was named one of America’s Most Endangered Places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Uranium mining is the turning point. Will the sacred ties that the Native people have with the earth be broken? Does the state have a responsibility to create jobs? Do the mining companies have an obligation to consider the tribal interests and environmental impact? Will the potential economic reward outweigh the risk? What is the fate of Mount Taylor?