Heinrich, Udall propose making Chaco buffer zone permanent

Industry spokesman says bill is duplicative, unnecessary

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are sponsoring the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would permanently ban oil and gas development in a 10-mile zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
  • The Navajo Nation and All Pueblo Council of Governors voiced support for the legislation.
  • The legislation would withdraw 316,000 acres of land from oil and gas leasing.
  • The bill would not impact current leases.

FARMINGTON — Legislation proposed by New Mexico’s U.S. senators would essentially make the moratorium on new oil and gas development within a 10-mile buffer zone of Chaco Culture National Historical Park permanent.

Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich announced they are sponsoring the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act this morning during a phone press conference that included Zuni Pueblo Gov. Val Panteah Sr. and Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye. Both Udall and Heinrich are Democrats, but they said they are looking for Republican co-sponsors.

“The Greater Chaco region represents the cultural heart of the Chacoan people,” Udall said.

The legislation would withdraw more than 316,000 acres of federal land from oil and gas leases. It has received support from the All Pueblo Council of Governors, as well as the Navajo Nation.

If passed, the legislation would not impact current oil and gas leases.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre described the buffer zone as an arbitrary classification that was put in place to facilitate conversation while the Farmington field office of the Bureau of Land Management developed an amendment to the resource management plan.

“I think codifying this arbitrary buffer zone is not the appropriate next step,” McEntyre said.

McEntyre said the buffer zone impacted current lease holders who had not yet developed their leases. If the leases were not yet developed, the operators were not able to drill.

Sen. Tom Udall

McEntyre said developed oil and gas wells within the buffer zone have continued to operate.

“We’ve been producing oil and gas in the San Juan Basin, including in some of the areas they’re talking about, for decades,” McEntyre said.

He said the legislation could discourage operators from developing in the San Juan Basin.

“If it’s 10 miles today, what’s it 10 years from now?” McEntyre said.

He said discouraging development could negatively impact local residents who rely on oil and gas industry jobs.

McEntyre said development and preservation do not have to be exclusive.

“It’s not one or the other,” he said. “We can do both.”

He said NMOGA agrees with the senators on a fundamental basis that Chaco Canyon and other culturally significant sites needs to be protected. But McEntyre called the proposed legislation duplicative and unnecessary. He said federal laws, including the National Historical Preservation Act and National Environmental Protection Act, already provide protection to cultural sites. In addition, McEntyre said standard industry practice is to protect cultural sites.

“No one wants to disrupt our cultural and our historical sites in northwest New Mexico,” McEntyre said.

Both Heinrich and Udall have been critical about the impact of oil and gas development on cultural sites such as the Greater Chaco landscape, which extends beyond park boundaries.

Udall said the park only protects a small portion of the Chaco landscape.

“The footprint of this civilization is very much larger than we originally believed,” he said.

Farmington resident Mike Eisenfeld, who is the energy and climate manager for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, said the proposed legislation is a step in the right direction.

“This area has been waiting for analysis for the past five years,” he said.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich

He said a resource management plan needs to be completed to address the new technologies and protection of cultural heritage.

Eisenfeld said development has used a mitigation approach and treated archaeological sites as islands. He said the San Juan Citizens Alliance will continue to work to protect cultural sites and expose the negative impacts that oil and gas development have on communities. Some of the impacts he cited include noise pollution from compressor sites and emissions from oil and gas wells.

“Chaco is truly one of the most important cultural sites in the world,” Heinrich said.

He said the legislation would protect the landscape nearest to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

“This is something that we should all be able to agree on,” Heinrich said.

Panteah said preserving the Greater Chaco landscape is a priority for the Zuni people and the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

He described the Greater Chaco landscape as the root of their Native American family tree, and he spoke about the ancestral Puebloan people and their prayers.

“When we protect this place, we honor their prayers and bless ourselves,” he said.

Begaye described the Chaco area as “invaluable and irreplaceable.”

Navajo Nation Historical Preservation Department Navajo cultural specialist Timothy Begay said Chaco has a high value for the Navajo people.

“These places hold songs and prayers that are still being used today,” he said.

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