THOUSANDS of ancient Indian carvings that sit smack in the middle of Albuquerque's growth path also lie at the center of one of New Mexico's hottest development battles. An estimated 10,500 of the carvings, called petroglyphs, were painstakingly etched by native Americans into the basalt cliffs and talus boulders along a 17-mile escarpment just west of this city. Several thousand more dot the volcanic mountains just two miles farther west.
Private homes have been built just 30 feet from some carvings, considered by many a priceless legacy of this area's ancient hunter-gatherers: the Anasazi and Southern Tiwa Pueblo Indians. The oldest figures are thought to have been carved between 1000 BC and 500 AD. Most were made by Southern Tiwa farmers between 1300 and 1680.
Preserving the carvings has prompted ``the most acute conflict in New Mexico between development and preservation,'' says Isaac Eastvold, president of Friends of the Albuquerque Petroglyphs.
All sides agree that the carvings are worth preserving. At issue, however, is private vs. government ownership of the land.
Under a bill sponsored by US Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, the petroglyphs would be incorporated into a new 7,100-acre national park. The bill is expected to pass the Senate and go to the House early next year.
Some 1,964 acres of the proposed park - including the escarpment and the most spectacular etched figures - are owned by Westland Development Company, successor to a 1692 land grant by the King of Spain to the town of Atrisco and its heirs.
Westland's board of directors is ready to sell the land. But among the shareholders and heirs of the grant is a faction - the Atrisco Land Rights Council (ALRC) - that does not want to sell the land outright to the government. ALRC officials say theirs is the only group protecting the heirs of the land grant - most of whom do not own stock in Westland.
The ALRC is pushing a plan under which the National Park Service (NPS) would acquire the 1,964 acres under an ``easement'' rather than buy it: Westland and Atrisco heirs would retain actual ``pride of ownership.'' The park service, however, recommends purchasing the land.
``The historic requirement of a people to lose its land in order for the government to preserve it fails to protect a culture closely attached to its land,'' says Jaime Chavez, ALRC president.
Mr. Chavez is among those who believe the proposed land sale goes beyond the issue at hand to the very heart of how the federal government deals with native peoples - and its history of taking land to preserve it. ``Our intention is not to stop the park, unless we view this as a taking of our land,'' Chavez says. ``Then we will stop it by any and all means.''
Sean Bersell, a member of Senator Domenici's staff, says the ALRC has ``suggested some real improvements to the bill.'' These include an advisory commission of which an Atrisco heir would be a member; provision for an heir to be involved in planning the monument; and specific mention of historical ties of the people to the land. In its original form, the bill left virtually unmentioned the Atrisco heirs, and Pueblo Indians, who still use the site for religious ceremonies.
Beyond that, the ALRC is seeking for the Atrisco heirs a larger role than has been granted to landowners under other NPS easements. But opposing the sale could bring lawsuits that delay the government's land acquisition.
``The ALRC has been proposing things that are either illegal or unfeasible - things the NPS will never agree to,'' Mr. Eastvold says. ``I really question whether or not they are serving their constituents well.''
The ALRC argues that, because of their close ties to the land, the Atrisco heirs are very much a part of the ``living landscape.'' An easement would protect the passing of common land from generation to generation, the group contends.
``The Atrisco heirs would not interfere in the day-to-day park management,'' Chavez insists. Instead, the NPS and the Atrisco heirs would forge a ``new cooperative and cross-cultural approach to land management.'' Such a system, he feels, could become an international model for disputes arising between governments and native peoples.
Beyond the aquisition dispute lies another hurdle - the $58 million in federal funds required to create the park. Six million dollars more will be needed from the state and $14 million from the city. Little federal money, however, has gone to create parks in the 1980s.
Yet development is moving ever closer to the escarpment. Unless the park becomes reality soon, observers worry it may come too late to save the old stone figures.