Historic resource designation often operates quietly as a first step in a long-term preservation strategy, but designation also sends a powerful and immediate signal that validates feelings of attachment that people have for a place. Opposition to designation—when it does arise—often comes from a lack of understanding about its legal effect.
The ongoing conflict about what designations mean to different constituencies was brought into sharp relief by a recent decision of the New Mexico Supreme Court involving Mt. Taylor, a mountain landscape of more than 400,000 acres in Grants, N.M.
Mt. Taylor, a National Treasure, is a pilgrimage site for more than 30 Native American tribes. It provides water to surrounding communities, a spiritual and recreational experience to visitors and residents, and is a beloved landmark visible from 100 miles away. It also contains one of the richest known uranium reserves in the country. Today, Mt. Taylor is threatened by two active mining claims and unlimited future mining potential.
The New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee registered Mt. Taylor as a cultural property in 2008, following the National Park Service’s determination of eligibility for the National Register of Historic Places. This state listing recognizes Mt. Taylor's historic and cultural significance and secures basic procedural protections. As a result of the state listing, New Mexico agencies are required to consult with the state historic preservation officer before allowing activity that may negatively impact the site.
Several years ago, however, mining and other interests sued the state over the designation. A trial court set aside the designation in February 2011, claiming that Mt. Taylor was “too large” to be managed or maintained and that it lacked “integrity” because of the possibility that the inventory of contributing properties within Mt. Taylor’s official boundaries might change in the future. This decision lacked any basis in law.
The National Trust, represented by its in-house legal counsel team, Betsy Merritt and Will Cook, and their Santa Fe co-counsel Richard W. Hughes, submitted briefs and oral argument in support of reinstating the designation. The legal team was joined by a coalition that included the Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni, the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, and others. [Brief 1 | Brief 2 ] Their reasoning proved persuasive. In a unanimous opinion, the New Mexico Supreme Court reinstated Mt. Taylor’s designation. The court’s opinion is available here.
Although preservationists and others who value Mt. Taylor are energized by this decision, the sacred mountain’s future is not yet secure. Uranium and other mining interests will likely continue to exercise development rights. Nevertheless, the New Mexico Supreme Court’s decision sent a powerful message about the importance of place and the need for procedural safeguards designed to protect those places.