Uphill Battle to Save A Sacred Mountain

Owners want state to buy site for a park

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For hundreds of years, native Americans pounded a trail from Belize to Colorado, plying their wares, trading for needed goods, and searching for their sacred stone - turquoise.

Along the way, they made frequent stops at Turquoise Mountain, a treasure-trove of the sea-blue gem, which to them symbolized water, the heavens, fertility, and the power of the sacred word.

But as the native American way of life was shunted aside, so Turquoise Mountain was forgotten. Until now.

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Today, the mountain's owners, Patrick and Judy Goosherst, are pushing Arizona and the federal government to buy the mountain and its surrounding land and preserve it as a state park.

Though state officials are not opposed to preserving the mountain, they say they don't have the money to purchase the land, much less develop it into a new park. "We have literally thousands of sites on our register like Turquoise Mountain," says parks department director Ken Travous.

Thus, this Arizona mountain sitting atop centuries of history and millions of dollars worth of turquoise has become the latest symbol of the limited resources available to state and federal governments for protecting culturally or environmentally important sites.

The bid to preserve Turquoise Mountain also illustrates a growing appreciation for the religious significance of land - especially to native Americans.

The Gooshersts say the mountain still contains about $12 million worth of high-quality turquoise. But they insist they don't want to destroy it for the money. "We just want people to understand the significance of this mountain and its relationship to all the people of Arizona," Pat Goosherst says.

The couple hopes to put together a deal between themselves, the state, and the federal government to create a 750-acre park. They are asking $2 million for the mountain, and the federal government has agreed to give the state several hundred acres it owns around the mountain if the land is used as a park.

At the urging of the Gooshersts and archaeological experts, state officials say they will consider the site for a park. But they caution it will be years before they can come up with the money needed to make the purchase.

The Gooshersts say it can't wait that long. A developer who is selling nearby parcels of land has asked for the right to use a dirt road that cuts across state land just west of Turquoise Mountain. The Gooshersts say the road would split the potential park in two.

The state is due to decide the status of the road within the next month. By then, the Gooshersts hope to persuade officials not to do anything that would preclude the possibility of a park.

Archaeologists who have surveyed some of the state's long list of prehistoric dwellings, burial grounds, and sacred places agree that many worthy finds are going unprotected and that Turquoise Mountain is one of them.

The mountain, 15 miles northeast of Tombstone, Ariz., contains a host of ancient Indian surface minerals. Experts say these are the only known major, prehistoric turquoise mines left in Arizona that have not been damaged by modern copper mining.

According to ancient mine expert Phil Weigand of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Turquoise Mountain is the likely location of the fabled "Lost Mine of the Zuni." He says the mountain was part of a centuries-long turquoise trade.

Turquoise had more than monetary value to the early inhabitants of the Southwest and Mexico, figuring prominently in the myths and rituals of many tribes. Even today, many Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and other native Americans wear turquoise in the belief that it will ward off injury and evil spirits.

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