#ItsNotOver: Coalition critical of NM senators' proposed Chaco protection law

Lawmakers say law's intent is to protect historic park

by John Moses
A proposed law that would mandate a 10-mile buffer zone around the core of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for oil and gas exploration leases isn't strong enough, according to critics who want to see a moratorium on such activities in the Greater Chaco area.

FARMINGTON — New Mexico’s U.S. senators got an earful this week from some seeking strong environmental protections for lands in the Greater Chaco area. They are critical of new bill to create a leasing buffer immediately around Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Their message: #ItsNotOver.

Critics of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act say the 10-mile protective buffer zone proposed by Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich doesn’t go far enough to protect the Greater Chaco area and its residents from the effects of oil and gas exploration and extraction.

The park is a World Heritage Site. It includes large stone structures, kivas and other features, many aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.

During the bill’s unveiling last week, co-sponsor Udall noted the bill is about cultural protection of a historic site, while Heinrich noted the region has a long history of oil and gas operations, and that won’t change any time soon.

The Protect Greater Chaco Coalition wants to see more protections and a moratorium on oil and gas operations in the area.

“Put simply, this legislation isn’t enough, and the fight to protect our future and our past is far from over,” the coalition said Tuesday.

Some land off the table for leases

Critics who want to see a moratorium on oil and gas exploration in the Greater Chaco area.

“The bill withdraws 316,076 acres of minerals from the 909,000 acres of the Proposed Chaco Protection Zone of oil, natural gas, coal, gold, silver and other minerals owned by the federal government,” Heinrich’s office said in a press release May 22. “In respecting Tribal self-determination, only minerals owned by the federal government are subject to withdrawal — excluding minerals in the area that are owned by private, state, and Tribal entities.”

MORE:Judge dismisses Chaco-area drilling lawsuit

Among the issues raised Tuesday by a coalition of groups active in the drive to curb oil and gas activities in the Greater Chaco area was the perceived suddenness with which the senators rolled out the legislation.

“Although our New Mexican Senators have consulted with the Navajo Nation and All Pueblo Council of Governors in drafting the proposed legislation, local Navajo Chapters and communities were not consulted in drafting the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which fails to provide protection for the health and safety of the living cultures of Greater Chaco,” a press release quoting several individuals and groups stated.  

Despite top-level support, many still feel left behind, and they are not being silent.
“The two Senators are just going through the motions to make this sound good and have already been bought and paid for! Today, there is already a lot of oil and gas development within the 10-mile buffer zone,” Samuel Sage, community services coordinator for the Counselor Chapter house, stated in the coalition’s press release. “Some of the leases have already been bought and are waiting for drilling. The issues impacting people living in the Greater area are never addressed. Where were the Senators in 2015 when development began?”

Sage said a more personal approach is needed.

“Rather than sending staff, Senators Udall and Heinrich need to come out here and talk to the people living in the area,” Sage wrote. “They need to smell the air and ground and see the damage that has been done. Then, maybe myself and my relatives might believe the intentions of our senators.”

MORE:Judge rejects one claim by environmental groups, affirms another

Udall’s office said Thursday he is on the job.

“Senator Udall believes this legislation is urgently needed to protect Chaco, given the potential resumption of oil and gas leasing in the area,” Udall press secretary Ned Adriance said. “Since his visit to the Greater Chaco Region in 2015, Senator Udall has also been pushing for a new Regional Management Plan to strike the right balance and provide broader protections for the communities and resources in this area, and has been a strong advocate for active public engagement in that process.”

Bill is ‘just one step’

At the rollout press conference last week, Udall addressed critics who say the bill doesn’t go far enough.

“First and foremost, this is a bill about cultural protection,” Udall said. “This is one step in a larger fight.”

MORE:New Mexico Democrats push feds to limit drilling near Chaco

Heinrich said resource extraction is a fact of life in New Mexico. “The reality is this is a basin with decades and decades of history … That cat is already out of the bag.”

The critics have critics

Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

An oil industry group didn’t weigh in on the bill itself but criticized the bill’s critics, saying their all-or-nothing approach betrays an agenda aimed at shutting down oil and gas exploration.

“New Mexico activist groups have two goals: end the oil and gas industry in New Mexico and put thousands of New Mexicans out of work,” said Robert McEntyre, director of communications for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association. “The fact is we can produce oil and natural gas, and protect our environment and cultural resources at the same time.”

McEntyre cited strict state and federal laws environmental laws that oil and gas companies must comply with and submit to as a requirement of operating oil and gas rigs in this state. 

MORE:Zinke places Chaco Canyon drilling leases on hold, pending cultural review

“Rather than promote destructive policies and divisive rhetoric, activists should focus on solutions to continue New Mexico’s energy leadership,” McEntyre said.
Some seek a moratorium

“The Protect Greater Chaco Coalition, which supports local Navajo Chapters and frontline communities dealing with the onslaught of industrialized fracking, is calling for federal legislation to prioritize the well-being of people and the environment,” the coalition’s press released said. “…Local communities have been clear in their opposition to fracking in the area.”

They cite 15 Navajo chapter houses, including the Eastern Navajo Agency Council (ENAC) and Tri-Chapter Council “whose jurisdictions are in the center of new industrialized fracking development” and support “a moratorium on new drilling and leasing and for a new management plan to adequately analyze and address the oil and gas impacts that communities regularly endure.”

Navajo Nation leader supports bill

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye

The senators rolled out the new legislation last week during a press conference that included participation by Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye.

“We are connected to these lands spiritually,” Begaye said. “The voices of our ancestors live in this area, and any disturbance to this area is culturally and morally insensitive. This is why I support this initiative from Senators Udall and Heinrich to protect these lands using this bill.”

The legislation is backed by the Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, the Wilderness Society and Southwest Native Cultures.

The bill aims to “ensure the protection of Chaco ruins and the greater landscape surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park by preventing any future leasing or development of minerals owned by the U.S. government that are located within a protected radius around Chaco,” Heinrich’s office said in a press release.

MORE:Environmental groups appeal BLM leasing in Greater Chaco area

"The greater Chaco region is a New Mexico treasure. Many Tribes and Pueblos in Northern New Mexico can trace their ancestry and culture to Chaco, and consider these sites sacred,” Udall said in the same release. “But even as archaeologists are making exciting new discoveries about this region, Chaco is being threatened by expanding energy development. I am proud of my work with New Mexico’s Pueblos and the Navajo Nation to craft this bill to protect this sacred, archaeological wonder.” 

He said the legislation reflects “hundreds of public comments, and honors New Mexico’s history and culture, recognizing that some places are just too special to lose.”