WASHINGTON (AP) - The top Democrat on the House Resources Committee said Tuesday that he intends to introduce a bill that would bar oil and gas drilling on public lands that are considered sacred by American Indians.
Rep. Nick Rahall, ranking member of the Resources panel, outlined his plans in a speech before the National Congress of American Indians, meeting in Washington, D.C.
The announcement could put Rahall, D-W.Va., at odds with the White House and the Republicans who hold the majority in the House. They have outlined plans to increase the production of oil and gas drawn from public lands.
But one key Republican - Rep. James Hansen, chairman of the House Resources panel - said he agreed in principle with much of Rahall's argument. However, Hansen, of Utah, predicted thatthere would be problems deciding which lands are sacred to Indians.
"In order to protect sacred public lands, we need practical criteria for identifying these lands and a fair process for resolving existing lease claims," Hansen said.
The issue came to public attention last June when Indians descended on Congress to protest a permit issued to Anschutz Exploration Corp. for the drilling of a wildcat oil well in a Montana valley sacred to Indians.
Weatherman Draw, known among some Indians as Valley of the Chiefs, has a collection of rare rock art and has been used for centuries as a place for meditation and meeting by several tribes.
The area 70 miles southwest of Billings is located between the Beartooth and Pryor mountains and contains significant concentrations of prehistoric rock paintings and carvings. In recognition of its cultural values, the Bureau of Land Management in 1999 designated it an Area of Critical Environmental Concern.
"We cannot stand idle as corporate America picks off Native American sacred sites tribe by tribe," Rahall said.
Laws already exist that serve to protect public lands, historical areas and Indian lands, including graveyards. But Rahall said he sees a need for a law specifically designed to protect those public lands that Indians say are holy.
The issue also comes as both Democrats and Republicans are looking to increase development of natural gas and oil on lands held by Indian tribes. That, say advocates, would have the twofold benefit of increasing the domestic energy supply and boosting income for Indian tribes.
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