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Feds pledge to improve protection of sacred sites

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Protection of sites held sacred by American Indians and Alaska Natives will be bolstered under a memorandum of understanding signed Thursday by four federal agencies and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.

The memo signed by the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy and Interior also calls for improving tribal access to sites that are on federal land.

"We have a special, shared responsibility to respect and foster American Indian and Alaska Native cultural and religious heritage, and today's agreement recognizes that important role," Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement.

The agencies plan to work during the next five years to raise awareness about sacred sites. That includes developing a website, a training program for federal employees and guidance for managing sacred sites.

The agreement comes just weeks after thieves made off with rock carvings from a sacred site in California's Sierra Nevada. The site on the Volcanic Tableland north of Bishop, Calif., was what land managers called one of the most significant rock art sites in the region. The local Paiute tribe uses the site for ceremonies.

Tribal leaders have said they're appalled at what happened to the petroglyphs, and the Bureau of Land Management is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.

Officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service also announced Thursday the findings of a report on sacred sites. It includes a list of recommendations for working more closely with tribes in the protection, interpretation and access to such sites.

"American Indian and Alaska Native values and culture have made our nation rich in spirit and deserve to be honored and respected," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement.

The report is the culmination of dozens of meetings with tribal members and agency employee surveys. It recommends training Forest Service workers on tribal history, law and culture. It also suggests promoting cooperative agreements with tribal police to enforce the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and other cultural laws.

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