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Congress explores legislation to protect Chaco Canyon from oil and gas development

Southwest tribes say the canyon has cultural significance that oil and gas development will destroy

Sen. Tom Udall, D-New Mexico, reintroduces a bill from last year that will permanently protect lands around Chaco Canyon from being exploited by oil and gas companies.

The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, co-sponsored by Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-New Mexico, last May, would “prevent any future leasing or development of minerals owned by the U.S. government on lands in a 10-mile buffer region” around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The S.2907 bill would be a permanent protection for the Chaco ruins and the estimated 5,000 artifacts within the greater Chaco area.

The bill also “withdraws 316,076 acres of minerals from the 909,00 acres of the proposed Chaco Protection Zone of oil, natural gas, coal, silver and other minerals owned by the federal government.”

During the Obama administration, this Proposed Chaco Protection Zone, was honored by the land management but that changed after the Trump administration took office. This move was pushed forward despite Chaco Canyon being declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.

The Bureau of Land Management received backlash from critics in January when they announced they would move forward with oil leases in March. No public comment period was held because of the government shutdown. The agency later said it would postpone.

“We cannot help but protest what appears to be an intentional bias in the favoring of oil and gas development over other interests,” Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley told the Associated Press in January.

During a conference call today, Udall said he, other New Mexico lawmakers and tribal leaders decided to double down their efforts on this bill so it could pass both the House and Senate.

A Senate hearing in August allowed them to see areas in the land management process and proposed legislation that needed improvement.

Udall, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said these minor changes to the legislation will ensure it receives bipartisan support and moves quickly.

The last time the bill was introduced, Udall said they had to educate their colleagues.

“When you’re introducing a piece of public lands legislation with significant Native American cultural concerns, there’s a lot of education to do. And we have done that,” he said during a media conference call on Tuesday. “We've been working all along and it's a continuous process. We've had a hearing that I think explored a lot of different issues and brought out things that we needed to focus on.”

Udall predicts that with some education on the bill to his Republican colleagues, they will receive “some good solid Republican support.”

One focal point from the hearing is improving the resource management plan in the San Juan Basin area, which is the northwestern part of New Mexico and the southwestern corner of Colorado. The Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Bureau of Land Management are working together on the plan. It’s the first time two agencies have worked cooperatively at once, Udall said.

While plans are being revamped, Acting Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt told oil and gas news that he “would like to get out there and see the site myself” because he thought “the planning process includes alternatives which would be conservation-oriented.”

New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richards intends to sign an executive order to place “a moratorium on all new oil and gas mineral leases on state trust land in the Greater Chaco Canyon area.”

The executive order will also create a working group to make recommendations for the long-term land management practices so the archeological and cultural resources can be protected, she said.

“This is my commitment to put tribal concerns regarding state trust lands before the bottom line of oil and gas companies,” she said.

The first meeting of this working group is Saturday, April 27.

“I have a constitutional authority over state trust lands as well as the responsibility to use that land to raise money for New Mexico schools, hospitals and colleges. This money comes predominantly from oil and gas companies and many commissioners before may have focused solely on oil and gas development, a practice that I consider to be shortsighted because it jeopardizes too much,” she said. “I will always manage our lands by considering the generations that will come after me.”

The act is supported by the Navajo Nation, All Pueblo Councils of Governors, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the Southwest Native Cultures.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has repeatedly requested that the Interior and land management to listen to tribes to protect the lands around Chaco Canyon as they are of great cultural significance to the tribes in New Mexico.

“As Native Americans, we are connected to the land and it is important to preserve sacred places. This is not only a Navajo teaching but an acknowledgment of a way of life for all indigenous peoples. The Nez-Lizer Administration stands firmly with the All Pueblo Council of Governors in protecting Chaco Canyon.

Chairman E. Paul Torres of the All Pueblo Council of Governors agrees on the cultural significance of the site, but said being “constantly threatened.”

“For our people, the Greater Chaco landscape is considered a living cultural site. Our spiritual leaders continue to make pilgrimages to this pristine landscape where we refer to these sites as ‘the footprints of our ancestors’. Despite its sacred importance, Chaco is constantly threatened by a growing network of roads, oil pads, and derricks. But by working with our fellow tribal nations, the state of New Mexico and our federal delegation we have the chance to protect Chaco once and for all. We are thankful for the work of Senator Udall, Senator Heinrich, Congressman Lujan, Congresswoman Haaland, and Congresswoman Torres Small. Today, New Mexico sends a strong and united message that Chaco deserves to be protected.”

Star trails over Casa Rinconada.

Star trails over Casa Rinconada.

While this protection bill does seem like a good move, Brian D. Vallo, governor of the Pueblo of Acoma, wrote in the Santa Fe New Mexican that they shouldn’t entirely rely on it.

“U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s forthcoming reintroduction of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is an important step to protect a portion of the critical area surrounding Chaco Canyon, but it cannot protect everything,” Vallo said. “Adequate protection is only possible when the BLM complies with its responsibilities under federal law to identify and avoid, or mitigate damage to traditional cultural properties when federal action is proposed. When the agency does not do this, as is the case with the impending lease sale, it must defer action.”

To Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, the site is the ancestral homelands to her people.

“It’s a place where the dark skies make the stars more vibrant than anywhere else – it’s something everyone has to go to and experience. By keeping Chaco from being destroyed by the fossil fuel industry, future generations will have access to this special place,” she said. “The community did its job, now we’re taking the next steps.”

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Jourdan Bennett-Begaye, Diné, is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @jourdanbb. Email:

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