Tribes in middle of property-rights battle

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JANUARY 12, 2001

As President-elect George W. Bush on Thursday defended two of his most controversial Cabinet designees, opponents to Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft and Secretary of Interior nominee Gale Norton today plan to step up their attacks in preparation of next week's confirmation hearings.

Environmental groups are expected to use Norton's defense of property-rights and ties to property-rights groups as evidence of her anti-environment views. Norton once worked for the Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) and serves in advisory positions for Defenders of Property Rights and Washington Legal Foundation -- groups who frequently battle the federal government over environmental laws and regulations.

According to Suzan Shown Harjo, at least one of these groups has an anti-Indian agenda. In a column in Indian Country Today this week, Harjo said Mountain States is "[d]evoted to the abolition of Indian treaties and sovereign tribal rights." Some of the groups' battles against the government have put tribes in the middle of the debate.

As part of its litigation, MSLF has fought a voluntary ban on climbing on Devils Tower in Wyoming. The National Park Service in 1995 enacted the voluntary ban in response to requests from tribes, who consider Devils Tower sacred and hold Sundances and ceremonies during the month of June.

But while MSLF has contends the ban violates the First Amendment and charges that the Park Service has hired Native Americans to "proselytize" at the Tower, the courts have disagreed. The Supreme Court last March let stand an appeals court ruling which upheld the voluntary ban.

MSLF is also involved in another First Amendment dispute with the Park Service over the Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah. Among others, the Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, and the San Juan Southern Paiute consider the area sacred and the Navajo Nation at one time sued to close Rainbow Bridge.

Although the tribe lost the case in 1980, the Park Service has since encouraged visitors to be respectful of the monument and not walk undernearth the bridge. But MSLF last year filed suit against the Park Service, claiming they were blocking access in violation of the First Amendment.

MSLF also opposes federal regulations which limit air tours over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, saying they are based on "junk science." The Havasupai Tribe and the Hualapai Tribe both support limiting the tours, seeking to protect their homes and land they consider sacred.

The rules are currently in limbo pending the outcome of issues raised by litigation. Several commercial air tour companies have protested the rules and the government last week delayed their effective date.

Relevant Links:
Mountain States Legal Foundation -
Defenders of Property Rights -
The Washington Legal Foundation -

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