The Battle for Zuni Salt Lake

For the Zuni, this place is the center of the world. For the Department of the Interior under Gale Norton, it’s just another coal seam, 18,000 acres of wasteland just waiting to be strip-mined.

The pueblo tribes of the Southwest call this place the Zuni Salt Lake sanctuary. The Interior Department and the mining company insist on calling it by the less alluring Fence Lake.

Located about 60 miles south of Zuni pueblo, Zuni Salt Lake is a rare, high desert lake. It’s extremely shallow, with the depth varying from four feet to only a foot and a half. During the summer months, much of the water evaporates under the scorching New Mexico sun, leaving behind beds of salt.

For centuries, the pueblo tribes of the Southwest, including the Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, Hopi and Taos pueblos, have made annual pilgrimages to Zuni Lake to harvest salt, for both culinary and ceremonial purposes. Ancient roadways radiate out from the lake to the various pueblos. The lake itself is considered sacred, home the Salt Mother deity, who the Zuni call Ma’l Oyattsik’i.

The land surrounding Zuni Salt Lake has always been considered a sanctuary zone, a kind of inter-tribal commons were hostilities are lain aside, purification ceremonies are performed and the sacred salts are gathered. Anthropologists say these areas, termed Neutrality Zones, are rare in North America and the Zuni Lake site is one of the most prominent and well preserved.

Most of the traditional lands of the Zuni Pueblo, including the salt lake, were seized by the federal government in the 1880s. The lake itself was designated a federal salt mine. The Zuni began fighting for the return of their most sacred site around the turn of the century. Finally, in 1977 the Carter administration relented to mounting pressure and decided to return Zuni Salt Lake to the pueblo. But, except for 5,000 acres of land immediately surrounding the lake, the remainder of the Zuni Salt Lake sanctuary stayed in federal hands, under the control of the Bureau of Land Management.

The Zuni Sanctuary has the geological misfortune to straddle the San Augustine coal formation, which stretches from Zuni Salt Lake north toward the Jemez Mountains. In 1986, the Zuni Tribe learned that the Salt River Project, an Arizona Utility with close ties to Bruce Babbitt, had applied for a permit with BLM to gauge an 18,000-acre strip mine at Fence Lake, 11 miles north of Zuni Salt Lake, in the heart of the sanctuary zone.

One of the big concerns raised by the Zuni at the time concerned the effect of the strip mine on the Dakota aquifer that underlies Zuni Salt Lake. Coal mines are massive consumers of water. One estimate suggests that the initial proposal for the Fence Lake Mine require the extraction of 600 gallons of water from the aquifer every minute over the 50-year life span of the mine. The Zuni rightly feared that this would do lasting damage to the aquifer and the lake itself. They asked the US Geological Survey to investigate.

Typically, the USGS took its time, partly because of the innate sluggishness of the agency and partly do to political interference from political appointees in the Reagan and Bush I administrations. When the report finally appeared in 1992, the Survey’s hydrologists estimated that the strip mine could lower the aquifer by at least four feet up to ten miles away. The report concluded that the survival of Zuni Salt Lake itself could be put into question.

But by then, the Salt River Project utility had been granted two strip mine leases by the ever-compliant Bureau of Land Management. Things came to a pause, however, when archaeologists with Park Service stepped in, determining that more than 55 percent of the land the BLM had given away to be strip mined by the Salt River Project qualified for protection under the Federal Register of Historic Places.

Archaeologists working for the Park Service and the tribes estimated that the sanctuary zone, which includes about 187,000 acres surrounding the lake, contains more than 5,000 archaeological sites, including burial shrines, ceremonial areas and other structures. It turned out that despite a decade of protests from the pueblo tribes the BLM hadn’t screened any part of the area for cultural or archaeological sites, areas it was ready to consign to dynamite and giant shovels.

The BLM knew better. In 1988, Dr. Clara Kelly, an independent anthropologist working for the Acoma Pueblo, interviewed elders with the tribe who told her that the Acoma considered most of the land slated for strip mining as being sacred. They also told her that the Zuni, famed for their reticence on these matters, believed the sanctuary zone extended over an even larger area. When Kelly tried to follow up, the BLM apparently interfered and she wasn’t granted permission to talk with the Zuni elders. Her initial report was found in the BLM’s files.

Kelly wasn’t the only scientist to find her warnings buried. Earlier this year, a hydrologist for the Bureau of Indian Affairs filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, claiming that a supervisor had harassed him after he cited hydrological studies saying that the strip mine would harm Zuni Salt Lake.

The Clinton administration could have halted the project, but it didn’t. In fact, the 1990s were largely a time of the Zuni tribe, and environmental groups, fighting off the BLM and the Salt River Project with one administrative appeal after another. Despite the high-minded rhetoric from Clinton and Babbitt about environmental justice and Indian sovereignty, the administration steam-rolled the concerns of the tribe and were ready to give final approval for the mine as the clock ran out on the Clinton White House.

For awhile, it looked like the Bush 2 administration, under fire and facing contempt of court citations for its ravaging of the Indian Trust Funds, might reverse course and can the project. But on May 17, Gale Norton quietly gave final approval for the strip mining to begin.

Under the Norton plan, the Salt River Project will be permitted to strip mine more than 18,000 acres over the next 40 years, extracting as much as 40 million tons of coal. To suppress dust and process the coal, Norton will allow the company to pump water from the nearby Atarque Aquifer.

The coal is destined for the aptly named Coronado Generating Station near St. Johns, Arizona, a main power source for metropolitan Phoenix that spews out a gray swirl of smoke visible for 50 fifty miles. In order to get the coal to the power plant, the SRP will build a 44-mile long railroad from the strip mine, which will cross federal land and destroy many ancient roadways to Zuni Salt Lake. The utility says its on schedule to begin construction of the railroad in the spring of 2003 and will begin mining coal in January of 2005.

Zuni tribal leaders say that the mine will destroy more than 500 burial shrines.

The Zuni and other pueblo tribes have few options left, but they are resigned to fight in the courts and, if necessary, through civil disobedience. On July 17, runners from Hopi, Acoma, Taos and Laguna pueblos led a protest at the headquarters of the Salt River Project then ran to Zuni pueblo, a ceremonial reenactment of the ancient pilgrimages to Zuni Lake.

“Everyone must learn to respect this place,” said Bucky Preston, from the Hopi Nation, who had just completed the 250-mile run from Phoenix. “We must start disciplining ourselves. If we don’t, greed will destroy us all.”

The governor of Taos Pueblo, Vincent Lujan was somewhat more direct. He reminded the officials of the Salt River Project utility about the Pueblo revolts of 1680, when the pueblo tribes pushed back the Spanish and warned that they were in for a similar battle.

“It took us 60 years of fighting to get back our sacred Blue Lake at Taos,” Lujan said. “Now are embarking on a similar battle. There’s meaning in what these runners do here. We were here before you. We’re going to be here forever. This is where our ancestors shed their blood.”


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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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