Udall, Heinrich, Luján and Haaland call for permanent protections around Chaco

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
In this 2005, file photo, tourist Chris Farthing from Suffolks County, England, takes a picture while visiting Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico. Members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are renewing a call for the creation of a formal buffer around the national park, which is held sacred by Native Americans.

FARMINGTON — U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland introduced legislation today that would permanently stop new oil and gas development within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

During a press call today, four Democratic lawmakers who represent New Mexico stressed Chaco’s importance as a national historical park and a UNESCO world heritage site.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small is the only member of the delegation who is not introducing the bill, however the Democratic congresswoman, who represents the southern part of the state, has supported the effort.

“It’s a place where New Mexico families make memories and families from all over the world make memories by visiting it every year,” Haaland said.

While Chaco Culture National Historical Park is surrounded by Navajo lands, it is also considered the homeland of the Pueblo peoples, including Laguna Pueblo. Haaland is a member of Laguna Pueblo.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez thanked the delegation for introducing the bill, which he said helps protect the Navajo lands and way of life.

“We want our lands not to be exploited by special interests,” he said during the press call.

New state protections pending

The 10-mile buffer zone has been informally designated as an area where there will not be any new oil and gas leases, however recent lease sales have included areas within that buffer zone. Those parcels were pulled following public backlash.

A map depicts the buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

 “This special place should not be under constant threat of destruction,” Udall said during a press call today.

He said he is not aware of many existing oil and gas leases within the 10-mile buffer zone.

State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said she plans to formally sign an executive order on April 27 removing state land in the Greater Chaco region from oil and gas leases. The buffer zone encompasses approximately 900,000 surface acres of land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“The land in Chaco is like a checkerboard — a mixture of state and federal lands,” she said.

Garcia Richard said the checkerboard land pattern makes collaboration important.

Industry group says bill is unnecessary

“The bill is a solution in search of a problem,” said New Mexico Oil and Gas Association Spokesperson Robert McEntyre.

McEntyre argued that the national park protects the resources within its boundaries and the National Environmental Policy Act assures adequate protection for cultural resources within the Greater Chaco region that are not within the boundaries of the park.

“We agree with our senators and representatives that the cultural treasures of Chaco Canyon ought to be protected,” he said.

An oil and gas industry group's spokesman said new legislation to protect cultural resources at Chaco Culture National Historical Park are unnecessary due to existing regulations and practices. Part of the park is seen in this 2013 file photo.

McEntyre said there is disagreement even within the Native American communities about the buffer zone. He said some people believe the buffer zone is too small while others believe it is too large.

When asked by an Associated Press reporter about the buffer zone, Haaland said there were initially people who hoped a larger area would be included. She said the 10-mile buffer zone was considered a “doable area to protect.”

“We’d love for larger swaths of New Mexico to be protected,” she said. “That’s not always possible.”

McEntyre said setting aside a permanent buffer zone strips nearby land owners of the right to develop the mineral assets and make money off of them.

“It would be a very disturbing trend for Congress to say arbitrarily large chunks of land are off limits for no apparent reason,” he said.

The reintroduction of the Chaco Heritage Protection Act comes less than a week before a Congressional committee is scheduled to have a field hearing, which includes a tour Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The hearing will focus on the impacts of oil and gas production on air pollution and sacred sites.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.