New Mexico State Land Office creates "buffer zone" to stop oil and gas in Chaco Canyon
Executive order signed by New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard
- Order places moratorium on oil and gas leases in Greater Chaco region
- The area is known for its cultural significance to local Native Americans
- Oil and gas industry leaders worry it could slow economic growth
Thousands of acres of state land in northwest New Mexico will be insulated from oil and gas drilling, after New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard signed an executive order this week to create a “buffer zone” around Chaco Canyon.
Garcia Richard signed the order placing a moratorium on oil and gas leasing on 72,776 acres of State Trust land in the Greater Chaco Region, read a Monday news release from the New Mexico State Land Office.
The moratorium would be in effect until Dec. 31, 2023.
The area is known as a World Heritage Site, and oil and gas operators looking to drill faced opposition this year from local Native American tribes and environmentalists seeking to protect lands they believe to be sacred.
Opposition to drilling in the region caused the Bureau of Land Management to defer lease sales for nine parcels near Chaco from the agency's March sale, following complaints from the local community and lawmakers.
The order also created the Chaco Canyon Land Office Working Group, a board comprised of tribal communities, private land owners and government officials.
The group will advise the State Land Office on land uses more compatible with the “nature” of the Chaco area, read the release, including potential land exchanges and land management decisions.
“Placing a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in the Greater Chaco Region is a huge step forward in safeguarding archaeological and cultural resources of New Mexico’s tribes, nations, and pueblos,” Garcia Richard said.
She said the working group would be instrumental is protecting land in the area sacred to Navajo Nation, bring more stakeholders to the table.
“The Chaco working group, comprised of tribal and environmental leaders, have already started important discussions about how we can protect the area and manage all of the land responsibly,” Garcia Richard said. “Tribal members will lead the way in making sure their ancestral land can be revered for all future generations.”
All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Paul Torres said the Greater Chacon Region is a key part of the customs of the New Mexico Native Americans, and a venue for numerous spiritual ceremonies and landmarks.
“The Greater Chaco Region is sacred. Many of our Pueblos still remember and use this place as a vital part of our present identity through story, song, prayer, and pilgrimage,” Torres said.
He commended numerous state agencies and lawmakers for collaborating to protect the area.
“We are grateful for the historic partnership established in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation between the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Navajo Nation, the New Mexico State Land Office, our entire New Mexico Congressional Delegation, and other stakeholders, and look forward to continued collaboration that affirms the protection of Greater Chaco as an ongoing part of our collective story - past, present, and future,” Torres said.
Michael Casaus, director at the national Wilderness Society said regardless of if it’s on state or federal land, drilling near Chaco could impact the local environment. He called on the federal Bureau of Land Management to adopt a similar policy to block oil and gas development the Greater Chaco Region.
“It doesn’t matter if oil and gas leasing is happening on federal or state land around Chaco Canyon — the impacts do not recognize boundary lines,” he said. “The leadership by State Land Commissioner Garcia Richard to protect this too wild to drill landscape should set a model for how the BLM and other federal agencies approach the management of this region.
“We applaud the steps taken today by the State Land Office to protect the health of nearby communities and the interests of the Pueblos and Navajo Nation.”
And New Mexico Wild Executive Directors Mark Allison said protecting lands beyond the traditional boundary Chaco Culture National Historical Park could also defend artifacts and sacred spaces that are yet to be discovered.
“Many Chacoan sites exist outside the Park's official boundaries, so oil and gas development on nearby state trust lands almost always mean the loss of artifacts, history, and sacred sites as well as wild lands, habitat and dark skies,” Allison said.
“Commissioner Garcia Richard’s actions are exactly the kind of common sense, balanced, and forward thinking leadership this sensitive area needs.”
But New Mexico Oil and Gas Association spokesman Robert McEntyre said such policy only further slows growth in a region already facing rising unemployment and a shrinking population.
"San Juan County and that area has been losing population and jobs for the last decade," McEntyre said. "You'd think lawmakers would want to encourage more growth, not discourage it."
He said oil and gas was developed in the region for decades in the past, and the industry was able to extract the resources while preserving the land.
He questioned Garcia Richard's motivation for the move as serving a "political agenda" rather than doing what's right for all New Mexicans.
"Taking such a broad area of land off the table and limiting production really only serves a political agenda," McEntyre said. It only hurts the local community and economy that depends on oil and gas."
McEntyre pointed to a defeated New Mexico Senate bill from this year's legislative session that proposed a moratorium on all new leases involving hydraulic fracturing in the state.
These kinds of policies and proposals, he said, could dissuade oil and gas developers from coming to New Mexico and doing business.
"Ultimately, we are committed to protecting Chaco Canyon, and our cultural and archaeological heritage," McEntyre said. "(The order) certainly gives companies pause. When we see these kinds of proposals, it sends a message as to the business climate in New Mexico, and how hospitable we are.
"This certainly sends a bad signal to investors looking to expand in New Mexico."
Read the executive order:
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Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, email@example.com or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.