by Stephen Capra
For the past three months or so, the staff of Bold Visions Conservation has been looking for an area in our state to work to protect. After a series of meetings with the Bureau of Land Management and meeting with other conservation groups, we have decided that one area stands above the others for reasons we will explore in this essay. Its name is Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, and it remains a true marvel of wildness in the heart of Navajo Country.
Some years back while Executive Director of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, I became enthralled with this area, but the area had a preexisting Coal lease that at the time was working its way through the courts. I went so far as to hire a Navajo organizer and began efforts to gain support from the tribe. As our efforts to create two National Monuments grew closer, we put Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah on the back burner.
Now several years removed and several trips to the area have made clear that my initial thoughts were right on the mark. Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah is small by wilderness standards, a little over 6,500 acres. Yet, in the current climate of Congress, that size may prove to be an advantage. In addition some of the canyons around the area which has been a wilderness study area since 1980 also hold great potential for the designation of a National Conservation Area with wilderness insets. The area itself is a land of hoodoos, spirals of rock, large chunks of petrified wood, and a place where sky and land touch with the wild spirit of a Native past. What remains a serious risk is that these lands and many more acres around the WSA are still open to STRIP MINING.
The perplexing issue has been a preexisting coal lease, the only one of its kind left in America. Surprisingly, according to BLM officials we met with, the value of the coal under Ah-Shi-She-Pah has actually gained value in recent years. So that has complicated a land swap first initiated by the BLM that would transfer these lands currently owned by the Navajo for lands in Wyoming that are already being mined or close to developed areas.
To date both states have agreed in principle to the trade, but the values issue has created a concern where some funds may need to be generated for the trade to be completed. Recently I spoke with Senator Heinrich about protecting this area. He was aware of the need for a trade, which would require an act of Congress, but was not aware of the vast Paleontological resources at stake in Ah-Shi-She-Pah and surrounding lands.
We began our efforts to protect this area by meeting with Adjunct Professor Robert Sullivan, who moved to New Mexico after a long career in Pennsylvania and years of research in the badlands of Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah. Mr. Sullivan has spent time not only making finds in the area, but has lectured at a museum that holds the greatest collection of paleontological finds from Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah, a museum located not in New Mexico, but in Sweden!
Dr. Sullivan understands as we do that these existing leases and the price of coal could mean that the area is still subjected to mining. In this case STRIP MINING!
Recently we met with Oscar Simpson, the Director of the Backcountry Hunters and Anglers and he agreed to work with us as part of a growing coalition to protect this area from strip mining and gain wilderness designation.
Yet, there remains one more complexity. It is that some of the lands in the current WSA were given to the Navajo as part of the Navajo-Hopi Settlement some years back. At the time the tribe saw the mining potential as possibly lucrative. Now, they have said with the transfers on the table, they no longer want the lands within the WSA.
For Bold Visions Conservation, there are many issues to address. But perhaps the first is gaining the respect and trust of the tribe. For if this area was to be strip mined, the coal would be delivered to the Four Corners Power Plant, where it would spew pollution directly over the reservation causing even more harm.
So to us it is important to have the tribe’s support, perhaps even work to allow co-management of the lands, so the tribe would have a stake in wilderness and more importantly in the health of the land, air and water which is so sacred. This will require some time and a true investment in people. We have the support of the Agency and we are growing support with like-minded organizations.
Bold Visions Conservation works on many issues across the United States and we hope to begin projects globally, but our home is New Mexico and after managing and directing campaigns to protect close to one million acres in the state, it is impossible to stop when so much more land needs protection. We know as a nation that we must free ourselves from the curse of fossil fuels.
Yet, what makes Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah so inciting, is the human element, the chance to work once again with Native Americans and allow them a voice in the very lands they have always called home. Wilderness does not happen overnight, but once protected, these lands remain so forever. The northwest quadrant of our state is being overrun by oil and gas rigs, the lands in question are only a mile north of the fabled Chaco Canyon. Common sense and respect for those who came before us dictates that we move forward with Congressional action that removes the risk of coal development and protects as wilderness these wild lands of hoodoos and spires, sky and desert as a testament to timeless nature of an evolving world, and in so doing work directly with those whose footprints are carved by wind and rain.
Bold Visions Conservation