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Delegation moves to create buffer around Chaco

Fajada Butte, situated just south of the visitor’s center at Chaco Canyon. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation on Tuesday announced legislation preventing the sale of oil and gas leases on federally owned lands in a 10-mile radius surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

U.S. Sens. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., and Deb Haaland, D-N.M., reintroduced the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, a bill they feel will protect archeological and cultural heritage sites that are considered sacred by Native Americans.

The bill would withdraw 316,076 acres of minerals from the 909,000 acres of the Proposed Chaco Protection Zone of oil, natural gas, coal, gold, silver and other minerals owned by the federal government.

Udall said the Trump administration has attempted to sell leases a couple of times in the area but later withdrew the efforts because of push-back from the community — including the Navajo Nation and area Pueblo communities.

He said the area “should not be under constant threat.”

“This bill defends the cultural heart of the Chacoan people,” Udall said.

“Chaco is a sacred landscape, revered by many, many New Mexicans,” said Heinrich, who noted that Chaco is a UNESCO Heritage site. “It’s one of the most important cultural sites on the face of the earth.”

Heinrich called for collaboration among the tribal communities, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs on future development in the San Juan Basin.

“We have to be vigilant in defending Chaco throughout the whole process,” Heinrich said.

Haaland — who called Chaco her ancestral home — said tribal communities had input on the legislation. She said they backed the 10-mile buffer around the park.

“The tribes worked hard to make sure this bill would pass,” Haaland said.

She said she was aware others would prefer a larger buffer.

“But we wanted to be realistic on what could be protected,” Haaland said.

Members of the Navajo Nation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors voiced support for the bill.

“We don’t want our lands to be exploited by outside interests,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association communication director Robert McEntyre said the industry supports the protection of archeological and cultural sites but questions what the 10-mile buffer would accomplish.

“No one can tell you what a buffer zone would actually provide,” McEntyre said. “It’s really irresponsible. There are landowners who own mineral rights in that area. … We’re talking about taking huge swaths of land off the table.”

He said there is a process through the National Environmental Policy Act that the industry must go through before it can drill.

McEntyre said if any archeological or cultural artifacts are found, drilling is forbidden.

He did say there were a few legacy oil and gas wells in operation within the proposed buffer zone.

When asked if the bill would affect any water and electrical-service projects for tribal communities in the area, Udall said the bill did not affect the use of mineral rights in tribal owned areas.

He also said the bill would protect some culturally important areas beyond the 10-mile buffer.

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard also announced an executive order placing a moratorium on oil and gas drilling on state trust land in the area. She called the area surrounding Chaco a “checkerboard” of state trust, tribal and BLM lands.

Udall acknowledged the bill would have an easier path in the U.S. House, where Democrats hold the majority.

But he and Luján said they planned to educate their Republican and Democratic colleagues about the bill, and believed the bill would eventually have broad support.

Haaland and Luján will be part of a congressional field hearing that will include a tour of Chaco Culture National Historic Park on Sunday and a hearing at the Roundhouse on Monday about the impact of oil and gas drilling near sacred sites.

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