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House passes Chaco Canyon protection bill

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, third from left, tours Chaco Culture National Historical Park about 95 miles northeast of Gallup on May 28, 2019. U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico is at Bernhardt’s right. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez is on the far right. (Jared Touchin/Navajo Nation via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The U.S. House passed legislation Wednesday that would prevent the use of federal land for oil and gas development within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.

“We’re very proud of this piece of legislation,” U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., told the Journal. “It has the support of the governor (Michelle Lujan Grisham), the pueblos, the Navajo leadership and advocates of the environment.”

U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small, both Democrats, also supported the bill, known as the Chaco Culture Heritage Protection Act. It passed 245-174 and now moves on to the Senate.

“This piece of legislation removes more than 316,000 acres from oil and natural gas development, and the use of coal minerals,” Luján said, a move he believes will protect the more than 5,000 artifacts estimated to be within the greater Chaco region.

He said the bill protects the heritage and culture of both the Navajo and Pueblo people.

“This is a sacred site to many people who still live in the area,” the congressman said.

Haaland called Chaco Canyon “hallowed ground” in a post on Twitter. She said it “must be valued the same way we value other sacred places.”

Haaland said Chaco had been “time and time again, exploited by big oil companies.”

The bill does not affect land within the buffer that is privately owned, owned by the state or under tribal control.

“The passage of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is the result of years of hard work and collaboration between New Mexico’s congressional delegation, tribal leadership and other stakeholders,” Torres Small said. “The joint effort ensures Chaco Canyon and its sacred lands are protected for generations to come.”

The bill contains protections for tribal and allotted land, specifically excluding trust and allotted land from withdrawal, stating nothing in the bill “affects the mineral rights of an Indian Tribe or member of an Indian Tribe to trust land or allotment land” and preserving tribes’ and allottees’ rights to build the infrastructure they need elsewhere in the withdrawal area in order to develop on their land.

Rep. Deb Haaland

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard earlier this year placed a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on state trust lands within the greater Chaco region.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association communication director Robert McEntyre told the Journal earlier this year that a few legacy oil and gas wells are in operation within the proposed buffer zone. He said the industry supports the protection of archeological and cultural sites, but questioned what the 10-mile buffer would accomplish. He said there is a process through the National Environmental Policy Act that the industry must go through before it can drill, and that the industry is forbidden from drilling in an area where artifacts are found.

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt put on hold for a year new oil and gas leasing on federal lands in the Chaco area earlier this year after touring the park with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.

In June, the House passed the Interior appropriations package that included a one-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling near Chaco. Similar protections are included in an Interior spending bill that is waiting for a vote in the Senate.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small

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