- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 18, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A federal judge has rejected an effort by a Native American tribe to reclaim Valles Caldera National Preserve.

U.S. District Judge James Browning recently issued a sealed opinion denying Jemez Pueblo’s claim that its aboriginal property rights were never extinguished. In a court filing that summarized his findings, the judge said the federal government had clear title to the land and the case was being dismissed.

Jemez Pueblo considers the nearly 140-square-mile (362.6-square kilometer) swath of federally managed public land as a spiritual sanctuary and part of its traditional homeland. The property is home to vast grasslands, the remnants of a massive volcanic eruption and one of New Mexico’s most famous elk herds.

Tribal officials and their attorneys could not be reached for comment Wednesday. It’s unclear if they plan to appeal.

Jemez Pueblo first sued the federal government in 2012, saying tribes have legal and just claims to retain possession of land that they have historically occupied within the United States. The legal fight came as members of Congress and others started to push for management of the sprawling preserve to be transferred to the National Park Service.

The case ended up before a federal appeals court. It was then sent back to the lower court to decide. Browning’s final judgment came Aug. 31 following a trial held last year in Albuquerque.

Spanish land grant heirs came to hold title to Valles Caldera following a swap nearly 160 years ago. The federal government then purchased the property in 2000 with the goal of operating it as a working ranch while developing recreational opportunities for the public.

Federal attorneys had argued that the tribe’s aboriginal title was essentially extinguished when surveyors, working under the authority of Congress, determined the land was vacant and turned it over to the land grant heirs in 1860.

The tribe has maintained in court filings that its title to the land predated the arrival of the Spanish in what is now the American Southwest, transcended Spanish rule and was later recognized by Mexico when it controlled the region.

When the tribe made its case before the appellate court in 2014, then-Pueblo Gov. Joshua Madalena described Valles Caldera as the tribe’s spiritual mother, likening it to the Vatican for Catholics. When ancestors were no longer allowed to use the area as their church, he said it was “a culture shock” for the pueblo and that the effects were still being felt.

The pueblo’s lawsuit describes more than 800 years of occupation by the Jemez people. The lawsuit claims archaeological surveys have identified dozens of pueblo villages, an extensive network of trails and thousands of ceremonial sites, agricultural fields and hunting traps.

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