Environment | Law

Gila River Indian Community files suit to protect sacred place

The South Mountains are seen from Laveen on the Gila River Indian Community in Arizona. Photo by loush555 via Wikipedia

The Gila River Indian Community of Arizona filed a lawsuit in federal court today to challenge the route of a $1.9 billion highway.

The path of the South Mountain Freeway crosses the South Mountains. The tribe reveres the site as one of its most sacred places.

"South Mountain, or Muhadagi Doag, is one of the Community’s most important and sacred natural resources,” Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis said in a statement quoted by The Ahwatukee Foothills News. “It is a prominent part of the community’s oral traditions and ceremonial activities, all of which are tied to the natural environment. The proposed freeway would destroy parts of three ridges of South Mountain and also would destroy or alter many trails, shrines, and archaeological sites that constitute significant cultural resources for the community and its members."

Petroglyphs in the South Mountains of Arizona. Photo Brandon.wiggins via Wikipedia

The Federal Highway Administration issued the record of decision for the route in March. The tribe said the South Mountains will suffer an "unacceptable impact" from the highway but the agency downplayed the significance.

"The physical impact on land designated as part of the South Mountains has been minimized through design, and much has already been done to minimize that effect," the agency said in response to the tribe. "Access to the mountain will be maintained and multiple other mitigation measures will be implemented due in part to suggestions made by the Gila River Indian Community itself."

The lawsuit is separate from one filed by Protecting Arizona’s Resources and Children. But the tribe has filed a motion to consolidate the cases and the group is welcoming the tribe's involvement.

"[A]lthough we have many of the same issues with the proposed freeway, the GRIC has a different slant on things - and the issue of the sacredness of South Mountain - that brings strength to all the arguments," Pat Lawlis, the president of PARC, said on Facebook.

In addition to the Federal Highway Administration, the tribe has named the Arizona Department of Transportation as a defendant in the case. The state has been seeking approval to build the highway since the mid-1980s, the Associated Press said. Construction could begin in 2016.

Get the Story:
Tribe files suit over path of planned South Mountain Freeway (AP 6/30)
Gila River Indian Community files lawsuit against South Mountain Freeway (The Ahwatukee Foothills News 6/30)

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