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FARMINGTON — As the new vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, New Mexico U.S. Sen. Tom Udall looks forward to continuing to address issues for the 23 tribes in the state.

"As the top Democrat on the committee, I'm in a strong position to fight for priorities for New Mexico tribes, and that includes things like improving tribal consultation," Udall said in a telephone interview from Washington on Friday.

The Democratic senator has been a committee member since 2009 and this is his first time serving as vice chairman.

Among the issues he hopes the committee, which he described as "unique" because "it has always been more bipartisan," will address are responsible energy development, environmental protection, improving access to health care, safe housing and quality education for tribal members.

With the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, Udall said there is the potential for tourism to increase in San Juan County.

The senator based his assessment on the influx of tourism to the state after the establishment of Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County in 2013 and Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in Doña Ana County in 2014.

"Within a year, we saw dramatic development in small business economic activity and additional tourism to those communities," he said.

Udall was among the delegation members from New Mexico to hail the final passages of the Protection of the Right of Tribes to stop the Export of Cultural and Traditional Patrimony Resolution in December.

The bill condemns the theft, illegal possession or sale, transfer and export of tribal cultural items. In addition, the resolution calls for measures to be implemented to help identify and end illegal trafficking and secure repatriation of exported items.

"These items are not art. They're critical to the cultural identity to our tribes across the country and in New Mexico," he said.

A provision in the bill calls on federal agencies to consult with Native Americans and take affirmative action to stop such practices.

"We need to educate the federal agents who police the items that are taken out of the country. They need to understand the importance in determining what is art and what is not," Udall said.

Also in December, the House and the Senate passed an amendment to expedite reimbursements for expenses incurred by local, tribal and state governments to address the Gold King Mine spill.

Udall applauded the passage of that measure and said federal lawmakers "must insure everyone impacted by the spill gets the help they need."

That includes holding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency accountable for compensation to victims and alleviating concerns about water quality, he added.

With the Senate preparing to hold confirmation hearings for President-elect Trump's Cabinet nominees, Udall said he is preparing questions for U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., who was nominated for secretary of the interior.

Udall said he is encouraged by Zinke's nomination because he has experience working with tribes, and the oil and gas industry.

"I think that's a good thing to have that experience in the secretary of the interior," he said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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