Blog   |   Mar 29th, 2017 Pioneering a new approach to consultation with Native Americans and Descendant Communities before project development

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In planning construction and development projects on U.S. lands that impact Native Americans and Descendant Community stakeholders, the usual approach for federal agencies and project proponents has been first to plan a “federal action,” then consult about it with tribes and other descendants.

TRC has recently completed work with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in New Mexico on the first stage of developing a new, innovative, approach to consultation. The key distinction is to conduct consultation well before the definition of any specific project, identifying areas and resources important to the continuation of traditional practices and lifeways significant to Native Americans and Descendant Communities. If and when projects that qualify as “federal actions” were to be proposed in this area, early consultation could minimize or prevent misunderstandings and project disruptions.

Our work with the USFS focused on the Jemez Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest which is primarily composed of mountains surrounding the center of a dormant super-volcano. The high mountain meadows are a habitat likely to contain plants used for medicine.

At some point in the future, the USFS may conduct forest-thinning to assist with fire threat suppression. It has also been speculated that geo-thermal energy production could be developed someday in the area. However, the intent of our study was not to provide site-specific information about resources, traditional cultural properties, or sacred sites. The intent was that higher level, general information could help guide discussion and planning for both current and future project undertakings so that effects on sensitive areas and resources would be minimized. The study encompassed the areas under consideration for forest thinning and geo-thermal energy, but it was not limited to just the areas where they would occur.

Work included a background literature search, meetings with multiple organizations including tribal councils, and limited field visits. One resource previously undocumented that could be affected by forest actions was the archaeological remains of sweat lodges that might have been used in earlier times by Navajo coming on a pilgrimage to sacred sites in the vicinity of the Valles Caldera. Consultants found evidence that the pilgrims would stop in camps in the surrounding mountains and purify themselves prior to continuing on to the sacred sites. Remains of such sweat lodges might still exist today, but could easily be damaged or destroyed by actions such as controlled burns to lower wildfire threats.

Our experience with this approach to consultation was encouraging, but far from conclusive. Ultimately, funding and time ran out. While we improved trust and understanding, it’s clear that this is a very different and still-unproven way of thinking about consultation, and people will continue to need reassurance that it’s not about laying the groundwork for specific projects, but improving overall understanding of areas’ traditional cultural and sacred properties and resources.

Consultation is a process, not an event. Continuing dialog over the areas of concern and the concerns themselves is vital. We believe we have made a promising start, and a road map towards a future that more successfully builds trust, consultation, protection of cultural and sacred resources, and where appropriate, success for projects impacting these areas.

I will present an in-depth discussion of the study and its results on Sunday, April 2, 2017, at the 82nd Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in Vancouver, British Columbia. Please contact me for more information.

Blog Author

Howard Higgins

Howard    Higgins