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The U.S. Department of the Interior is consulting with tribes and pueblos this week to discuss potential changes to oil and gas leasing in the greater Chaco region of northwest New Mexico, pueblo leaders said Tuesday.
The Bureau of Land Management is proposing a 20-year ban of new mineral leasing on 351,000 acres of federal land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Randall Vicente said the 10-mile buffer is necessary to protect pottery, petroglyphs and shrines from unchecked oil and gas development.
“Together, this area is one irreplaceable, sacred, interconnected landscape unlike any other,” Vicente said. “We remain tied to those resources, not only because they represent the footprints and fingerprints of our ancestors, (but also because) we rely on them on this day as Acoma people.”
The Chaco Heritage Tribal Association is using congressional funding for regional site and culture studies that will help inform land management decisions.
Important sites are being “desecrated,” said Ben Chavarria, Santa Clara Pueblo’s tribal historic preservation officer.
Chavarria spoke of pueblo staff who recently found a barbecue grill in a kiva pit during a field research survey at a Chacoan outlier site at Dalton Pass, along with tire treadmarks.
“There is no other way to describe this treatment than as shameful,” Chavarria said. “Once damaged, these sites cannot be rebuilt or replaced.”
The BLM and pueblo leaders have emphasized that a withdrawal would not affect any existing leases or new drilling on private land or allotted land for tribal members.
But the Navajo Nation Council has advocated for a smaller buffer zone.
Many of the Navajo lawmakers say that anything larger than a 5-mile radius could indirectly affect allottees.
Mark Mitchell, the All Pueblo Council of Governors chairman and a former Tesuque Pueblo governor, said that the 10-mile area was agreed upon years ago by pueblos, the Navajo Nation and other tribes.
“For at least the past decade, pueblos and other tribal nations throughout the Southwest have raised concerns about increasing oil and gas development on this sacred landscape, along with its associated negative health impacts,” Mitchell said.
The BLM will accept public comments on the proposal until May 6.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.