BLM reverses position on Chaco protection bill

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

The Bureau of Land Management no longer opposes an effort by members of the New Mexico congressional delegation that would ban oil, gas and other mineral leasing within a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

BLM sent U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich a letter notifying him of its change of position on the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019. It said Interior Secretary David Bernhardt had instructed the agency to draft a Resource Management Plan that includes an alternative reflecting the views of tribal leaders, “which are similar to the proposed legislative boundaries in HR 2181 (the House version of the act).”

Bernhardt had already directed BLM to defer leasing within the proposed zone for a year.

The letter was submitted during a hearing on the bill in the House on Wednesday. The BLM had submitted a letter of opposition to the Senate version of the bill on May 14.

“It makes a much easier path forward for this legislation,” Heinrich told the Journal.

All the members of the New Mexico delegation, all Democrats, are sponsors of the bill.

Heinrich said the change of position is directly related to the tour he hosted with Bernhardt last week in which they met with area tribal leaders, and the letter seems to reflect that.

Bernhardt gained “an appreciation of the site managed by the National Park Service, and a better understanding of the tribal leaders’ views of its cultural significance,” the letter said.

“It was very important for him to listen to what they (tribal leaders) had to say,” the senator said, and he said the letter acknowledged that Chaco “should have special management. It’s a place that currently impacts the culture of the area, not just historically impacts it.”

During the House hearing, U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland said the Navajo Nation and the area’s pueblos still had cultural connections to Chaco Canyon, saying that they “recognized the area as a spiritual place that should be respected.”

“Today, thousands of ancestral sites are spread about the landscape both within and beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historic Park,” she said. “With the Trump administration’s continued push for energy dominance, these sacred sites and national treasures are threatened by extraction.”

Heinrich said he is confident the bill will pass, even in the Republican-controlled Senate.

“I feel good about it,” he said. “It continues to gain momentum. … We continue to garner support.”

The legislation would withdraw about 200,652 federal surface acres and about 333,827 acres of federal subsurface mineral estate surrounding the park.

It does not affect tribal or private lands. State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard recently placed a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on state trust land within the buffer zone.

The BLM said the change in position was not a change in the Trump administration’s policy to develop “the vast domestic energy resources on public lands to create jobs, lower costs for working Americans and build a strong economy.”

But the letter said Bernhardt recognized there are places such as Chaco that could benefit from enhanced protection.

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