New Mexico’s U.S. senators, 2 House members back Chaco drilling ban

April 10, 2019

New Mexico’s U.S. senators and two of the state’s U.S. representatives once again are calling for the creation of a 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park to protect the area, held sacred by American Indian tribes, from oil and gas development.

Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland — all Democrats — held a conference call Tuesday with news media to talk about the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would create the buffer zone on federal lands around the park as well as other cultural sites in the area in northwestern New Mexico.

Also speaking on the call were Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria, who is vice chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors. Both Native leaders said they strongly support the legislation to protect Chaco from the effects of mineral extraction.

“The Trump administration keeps threatening to sell [oil and gas] leases on these sacred lands,” Udall said. “This ongoing threat of development is an affront to the tribes who have a deep connection to this land. … Some places are just too special to lose.”

Heinrich pointed out that Chaco Canyon was one of the first places protected by the Antiquities Act that President Theodore Roosevelt signed in 1907. It has since been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The land around Chaco is a “checkerboard” of property owned by federal, state and tribal governments as well as private land, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said on the conference call. Later this month, she said, she will issue an executive order prohibiting oil and gas development on state trust lands in the area.

A spokesman for Udall said the federal bill has been introduced in the Senate and the House.

“We are hoping for a markup of the bill in the Senate and House in the coming weeks or months,” Ned Adriance said.

The House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will be visiting New Mexico for a Sunday tour of Chaco Culture National Historical Park and a Monday public hearing on the bill. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is scheduled to speak at the hearing.

The new bill, the congressional team said, is a slightly revised version of a similar Chaco protection bill introduced last year. That legislation was discussed in August by the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Subcommittee on Public Lands, Forests and Mining; the bill didn’t make it through Congress.

While the new legislation has a better chance of passing the House — because Democrats are now in the majority in that chamber — it is expected to face a harder road in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, Udall and Luján predicted they will have some GOP support for the measure this year.

Protecting Chaco was one issue that Heinrich has brought up in defending his decision to back President Donald Trump’s nominee for interior secretary, David Bernhardt.

“While we do not — and will not — agree on many issues or policy decisions, I have found that acting Secretary Bernhardt has always kept his word,” Heinrich said last week. He complimented Bernhardt’s commitment to visit New Mexico and meet with tribal leaders pushing to protect the landscape around Chaco.