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Interior: Congress responsible for Chaco leasing buffer zone

U.S. Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt at Petroglyph National Monument in Albuquerque on May 21. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A 10-mile zone of federal land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park will be excluded from energy leases until the end of 2020.

But after that, it’s up to Congress to make the buffer zone permanent, U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said Monday.

The Bureau of Land Management deferred area leases after Bernhardt’s visit in May 2019 with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich.

“I found the site to be stunning and compelling,” Bernhardt told the Journal. “I committed to (Heinrich) that I would wait a year before taking part in any leasing in that area because he had legislation to codify an area into a different status, and I respect Congress’ ability through the property clause to set the rules of the road. So I waited a year. I’ve continued to extend that even though they haven’t been able to move their legislation.”

The BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are amending a resource management plan for the Farmington region.

Interior extended the comment deadline for the draft plan from May 28 to Sept. 25 after lawmakers asked for more time due to the pandemic.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors and the Navajo Nation Council still question whether virtual meetings are adequate. But Bernhardt said the extension provided a “robust amount of time” for public comment.

“I’m a big believer that these processes need to come to resolution,” he said. “We have a lot of comments in, and I think that most views will have been shared extensively. I think we’ll see some changes to the preferred alternative after hearing from the public.”

On Tuesday, Sens. Heinrich and Tom Udall, both New Mexico Democrats, accused Interior of rushing the plan.

“The Trump administration is showing its true priorities in a decision that refuses to respect the wishes of the Navajo Nation and Pueblos who consider this land sacred, while clearing the way for oil companies to threaten this New Mexico treasure,” the lawmakers wrote in a statement.

The secretary is touring national parks and monuments, which could benefit from the Great American Outdoors Act. The legislation, signed by President Trump in August, provides $1.9 billion a year for five years to help with maintenance, as well as $900 million annually for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Bernhardt called the act a “tremendous commitment” to improving Interior sites.

“Public lands are good for people’s souls,” he said. “They provide solace, they provide respite, they serve as moments of inspiration. They’re good for just getting out and getting exercise, and I think America has learned that through their experience since March.”

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

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