Tribal Leaders Concerned Over Feds' Proposed $300M Project That Would Cross Sacred Lands

Indigenous leaders in New Mexico are concerned over a proposed transmission line, expected to cost up to $300 million, that they say would cross through an important sacred area in the state.

The line would reach for over 12 miles, including through an area called the Caja del Rio that contains a high concentration of petroglyphs, ancestral homes, ceremonial kivas, roads, irrigation structures and other cultural materials, according to the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

The council, which represents 20 pueblos across New Mexico and Texas, recently passed a resolution backing the protection of the Caja del Rio.

The federal government's planned transmission line project is aimed at funneling more electricity to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U.S. Energy Department facility initially created during World War II for the design of nuclear weapons.

An increased electricity supply would support current and future missions at the laboratory, including building key nuclear arsenal components.

The transmission line would also span the Rio Grande at White Rock Canyon, where new structural towers will need to be constructed on both sides of the ravine.

Los Alamos National Laboratory
The federal government’s planned transmission line project is aimed at funneling more electricity to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a U.S. Energy Department facility created during World War II for the design of nuclear weapons. Technical Area 18 of the Los Alamos National Laboratory is shown August 12, 2002 in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Neil Jacobs/Getty Images

The tribes say longstanding mismanagement by the federal government has resulted in desecration to sacred sites on the Caja del Rio.

The U.S. Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration announced in April that it would be working with federal land managers to assess the project's potential environmental effects.

However, pueblo leaders claim there has not been adequate tribal consultation on the proposed project.

All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Wilfred Herrera submitted a letter to the Santa Fe National Forest on December 17, requesting that forest officials comply with consultation requirements.

Herrera, a former governor of Laguna Pueblo, said preservation of the Caja Del Rio's sacred landscape is a collective priority for the council as it works to protect ancestral homelands around the region.

He said Caja del Rio is home to pueblo ancestors and spirits.

"We encourage the federal government to understand that to fully engage with the pueblos, we need your commitment and cooperation, especially during this time of year marked by transition and rest. APCG stands ready to support decision-making that protects pueblo cultural resources in perpetuity," he said in a statement issued last week.

Federal officials have said they will try to avoid known biological, recreational, cultural and historical resources, such as the Camino Real Aldentro National Historic Trail. Another goal would be minimizing visibility of the transmission line from residential areas.

The project calls for new overhead poles with an average span of 800 feet (244 meters), access roads for construction and maintenance and staging areas where materials can be stored.

Part of the line would be built along an existing utility corridor, but a new path would have to be cut through forest land to reach an electrical substation.

Environmentalists, residents and others already have voiced concerns about potential effects, saying the area encompasses wide Indigenous landscapes and is a scenic gateway to northern New Mexico.

The area has seen an increase in outdoor recreational use and it serves as a migration corridor for wildlife.

The Los Alamos Study Group, a watchdog group that has been critical of Los Alamos lab's expansion plans, has said the lack of an overall analysis of the cumulative effects that plutonium core production and more weapons work could have on the surrounding communities is another concern.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Los Alamos
An increased electricity supply via a proposed transmission line project would support current and future missions at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, including building key nuclear arsenal components. A stone sign welcomes motorists to Los Alamos, New Mexico, home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory established in 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project. Robert Alexander/Getty Images