"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.
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.
Today the scent of pine and juniper floats in the morning air under a blue sky. The valley rolls out a green tongue of trees in the slot canyon, tracing a path toward the Valles Caldera. The tribe has removed the invasive, exotic tamarisk and Siberian elm and Russian olive from 650 acres along the Rio Grande and restored 75 acres of wetland. In the burn area above the canyon 1.7 million seedlings have been planted, including ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, blue spruce, Engelmann spruce, and white fir. Where Turkey Creek joins the main stream, the signs of elk are everywhere—gnawed bark on wind-felled aspen, droppings in the snow—and ancient beaver dams molder under recent growth. Fifteen years ago the last beaver left this canyon. Now the tribe hopes that with the restoration of streamside growth, the beaver will return and once again start the cycle of dams, ponds, and eventually, as silt fills the impoundments, meadows—a rhythm as old as the mountains.
The pueblo's recreation director, Stanley Tafoya, says simply, "What we are trying to do is restore our resources. The older people want their grandkids to enjoy the canyon we once knew.""
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(National Geographic August 2010)