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Udall seeks assurance from Interior on monuments

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — While members of the New Mexico congressional delegation and environmental advocacy groups were pleased with Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s commitment to hold off oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile buffer zone of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for a year, the state’s senior senator would like some assurances that national monuments would be protected as well.

U.S. Sen. Tom Udall questioned the secretary about the Trump administration’s plans for national monuments – including Organ Mountain-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte in New Mexico – during a congressional hearing a few weeks ago. In 2017, the administration had announced plans to shrink the monuments.

Sen. Tom Udall

“Yes, or no, Mr. Secretary, has the department taken any actions to date, or does the department have any plans to take future actions, including making additional recommendations to the White House for presidential action, that implement changes to the eight other monuments called for by (former) Secretary (Ryan) Zinke’s review?” Udall asked at the hearing.

Bernhardt replied, “I think the answer is no,” and that he will “not take any action on any monuments,” unless directed by the president.

Udall told the Journal this past week that the answer was hardly reassuring.

“I asked him about all of the monuments that are still open,” the Democrat said. “There are eight monuments, two of them are here in New Mexico. Secretary Zinke seemed to tell us those monuments aren’t going to be touched, we’re not doing anything else. We want the same assurance from Secretary Bernhardt.”

Bernhardt “did and he didn’t” give an assurance, Udall said. “He seemed to leave it open.”

“We don’t know what he tells the president,” he said.

Bernhardt toured Chaco Canyon this past Tuesday with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. His commitment to hold off on the leasing came after the tour.

Sen. Martin Heinrich

HEINRICH, UDALL REACT TO MUELLER’S COMMENTS: Special Counsel Robert Mueller again stoked fires of impeachment talk this past Wednesday by comments he made when he announced he was closing his office.

“If we had confidence the president clearly did not commit a crime we would have said so,” Mueller said in defending the work of his office.

Heinrich voiced concerns about Mueller’s report being heavily managed and redacted by Attorney General William Barr.

“There is an influence from the administration in the law enforcement agency that is unprecedented,” Heinrich said. “I think that should concern everyone. I think that is the root why we should have a direct conversation with Robert Mueller. There are some damning things in that report that have not made it into the public discourse because of the way the report has been handled by the attorney general.”

Heinrich said he has read the entire report.

Udall said the special counsel was unable to charge the president with obstruction of justice “solely due to Department of Justice policy – not lack of evidence.”

“These important conclusions from the special counsel’s report may have been obscured by the false narrative spun by the administration, but they are deeply troubling and merit strong congressional oversight,” he said in a release.

GRANT FUNDING TO FIGHT OPIOID EPIDEMIC: Heinrich, Udall and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small announced the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has awarded three grants totaling $600,000 to rural communities across New Mexico and Indian Country in order to help combat the opioid epidemic. The funding comes through the Rural Communities Opioid Response Program administered by the Health Resources and Services Administration and will support treatment, prevention, and recovery efforts in Santa Fe County, San Juan County and the rural southern counties of Catron, Chaves, Cibola, De Baca, Eddy, Grant, Hidalgo, Lea, Lincoln, Luna, Otero, Roosevelt, Sierra and Socorro, as well as the rural-designated regions of Torrance and Valencia counties.

Scott Turner: sturner@abqjournal.com

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