Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., who proposed the amendment, told the Journal the legislation is a step toward permanent protections against oil and gas drilling in the area.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is in the San Juan Basin, one of the most productive oil and gas basins in the nation.
“We should be doing everything we can to protect the greater Chaco area,” Luján said. “These are important sacred sites, especially where our loved ones have been laid to rest. We don’t want those to be desecrated. These sites have traditional, cultural, spiritual and archaeological importance, and they are significant to the pueblo people and the Navajo people.”
In May, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt said he would direct the Bureau of Land Management to defer new federal leases in the 10-mile buffer zone for one year, after Bernhardt’s visit to the park in late May with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., and Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.
Luján said this latest legislation complements the secretary’s announcement.
“I appreciate and applaud Secretary Bernhardt for the announcement that there would be a one-year moratorium,” Luján said. “That was good to have that come from the executive branch. Now I’m doing my duty as a member of the legislative branch to codify that agreement and put it into law.”
Luján said he is concerned that the Senate won’t exercise the same “urgency” as the House did to pass the appropriations bill.
“(Sen.) Mitch McConnell has referred to himself as the ‘grim reaper’ of legislation coming from the House,” Luján said. “Whether it takes this Congress or further legislative action, we will work to get this appropriations package and the permanent protection legislation to the president.”
In addition to the one-year moratorium, Luján is working with the rest of the New Mexico delegation to pass the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019. In April, Luján introduced the bill in the House and Sen. Tom Udall introduced it in the Senate.
The bill would create a permanent 10-mile buffer around Chaco, with no mineral extraction leases permitted.
Conservation agencies in the state have praised the New Mexico delegation’s efforts to secure permanent protections.
The proposed act has garnered supported from the Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, New Mexico Wild, the Wilderness Society, and Southwest Native Cultures.
“Many Chacoan sites exist outside the park’s official boundaries, so lease sales by BLM in the surrounding area almost always mean the loss of artifacts, history and sacred sites, as well as wildlands, habitat and dark skies,” said Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild.
Ernie Atencio, the Southwest regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, applauded the appropriations as a step toward permanently protecting public lands and national parks from “unnecessary, shortsighted oil and gas development.”
Luján said the appropriations package is on its way to the Senate.