Federal officials on Monday agreed to a request by two Indian tribes for special protections for Nantucket Sound, a move that could delay construction of a proposed wind farm off Cape Cod.
The National Park Service said the sound is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant traditional cultural, historic and archaeological property.
The Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribes say the designation, which would come with new regulations for activity on the sound, is needed to preserve the tribe's sacred rituals.
The Wampanoag _ the tribe that welcomed the Pilgrims in the 17th century and is known as "the people of the first light" _ practice sacred rituals requiring an unblocked view of the sunrise. That view won't exist if the Cape Wind project's 130 turbines, each over 400 feet tall, are built several miles from the Cape Cod shore across a 25-square-mile swath of federal waters. The turbines would be visible to Wampanoag in Mashpee and on Martha's Vineyard.
Tribal rituals, including dancing and chanting, take place at secret sacred sites around the sound at various times, such as the summer and winter solstices and when an elder passes. The tribes also say their ancestors' remains are buried on Horseshoe Shoal, where the turbines would be built.
The designation could add months to the approval process by forcing developers to comply with the designation's standards.
The decision is the latest twist in the long, bitter, public fight over plans to build the project.
Cape Wind opponents say it would be a hazard to aviation, harm the environment including fish and bird life, and mar historic vistas. The late Sen. Edward Kennedy, whose family compound would view the turbines, fought the project until his death last summer, saying it was a triumph of special interests over state interests.
Supporters say the project will provide cheaper energy, reduce pollution and create green jobs.
Cape Wind supporters say the tribes' claim for a National Register listing for the sound is baseless and was sprung late, in league with the project's most vociferous opponents, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound.
The wind project was proposed in 2001 and is expected to cost $1 billion. It aims to provide up to 75 percent of Cape Cod's power. Other offshore wind farm proposals are in earlier stages of development in several states, including Rhode Island, Delaware and Texas.
Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who must still sign off on a federal permit before the project can move forward, said Monday he was beginning a final review of the project.
"America's vast offshore wind resources offer exciting potential for our clean energy economy and for our nation's efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil," said Salazar. "But as we begin to develop these resources, we must ensure that we are doing so in the right way and in the right places."
Salazar said he would bring interested parties together next week to discuss ways to "minimize and mitigate Cape Wind's potential impacts on historic and cultural resources."
He said if agreement cannot be reached by March 1 on ways to do that, he would "be prepared to take the steps necessary to bring the permit process to conclusion."