Santa Clara Pueblo, New Mexico
When drought dried the land around 1580, New Mexico's Puye Cliff dwellers abandoned their homes. Their descendants, the Santa Clara Pueblo, are restoring the nearby watershed.
The Santa Clara Pueblo is among a growing number of tribes across the United States—of 564 recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)—making moves to bring back land crushed over generations of human use. Native American reservations cover 55 million acres of land (compared with 84 million acres controlled by the National Park Service), though most of these acres are not managed as wilderness or wildlife preserves. But something remarkable is emerging in Indian country. Those whose lands were once taken from them, those once dominated, often brutally, by the U.S. government, are setting an example for how to steward the environment.
In 1979 the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of Montana became the first in the nation to set aside tribal land—92,000 acres of the Flathead Reservation's mountains and meadows—as wilderness. Since then, the Nez Perce have acquired 16,286 acres of ancestral lands in northeast Oregon that they will manage solely to benefit fish and wildlife. The Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in northeastern Montana are working to bring back bison on the Fort Peck Reservation. In Minnesota the Chippewa, or Ojibwa, have restored a ravaged walleye population at Red Lake. And on the Fort Apache Reservation in Arizona the threatened Apache trout is finding a new home, and the forest is now managed with ecology, not just lumber, in mind.
Santa Clara Pueblo's conservation program had an unlikely beginning. Late one evening in May 2000 a controlled burn to remove underbrush in nearby Bandelier National Monument went awry. The so-called Cerro Grande fire wound up devouring 235 buildings in the towns of Los Alamos and White Rock and eating more than 47,000 acres, including the upper part of Santa Clara Canyon. The fire even spread to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, though no radiation was reported to have been released from its nuclear facilities. When the smoke cleared, the Santa Clara Pueblo closed the canyon, long a tourist attraction, and announced that it would take over management of its land from the BIA.