Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visits Chaco Canyon amid oil, gas development debate

Sen. Martin Heinrich, who is sponsoring the Chaco Culture Heritage Area Protection Act, invited the interior secretary to visit Chaco Canyon during the secretary's confirmation hearing in March.

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK — Interior Secretary David Bernhardt expressed amazement as he walked through the rooms at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park on May 28 accompanied by U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-NM.

“I’m blown away out here,” Bernhardt said as he walked along the walls of Pueblo Bonito.

Heinrich invited Bernhardt to visit the national historical park during Bernhardt’s confirmation hearing in March.

“I think it’s always helpful to see things in person,” Heinrich said. “It’s hard to describe this location to folks sitting in an oak-paneled room in Washington D.C.”

Heinrich is sponsoring the Chaco Culture Heritage Area Protection Act, which would prevent oil and gas development of federal lands and minerals within a 10-mile buffer of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

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Bernhardt's first visit to Chaco Canyon

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Pueblo of Acoma Governor Brian Vallo met with Heinrich and Bernhardt at Chaco Culture National Historical Park. They spoke about Chaco Canyon’s importance to their tribal cultures.

Bernhardt said he told the senator “absolutely” after Heinrich invited him to visit the park.

“I had no idea what we would see,” Bernhardt said.

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Bernhardt’s visit on May 28 was his first time to Chaco Culture National Historical Park; however, it was not his first time visiting an ancestral Puebloan site.

Bernhardt said his favorite park growing up was Mesa Verde National Park.

“I went there as a kid and it was just a spectacular experience,” he said.

At that time, Bernhardt said visitors to Mesa Verde were able to crawl through tunnels and go inside the kivas. That has since been changed to protect the fragile archaeological features.

While Bernhardt had never been to Chaco Culture National Historical Park before May 28, Heinrich has frequented the park.

At times, Heinrich paused to give Bernhardt some background information. He told Bernhardt about the dendrochronology used to date the wood at Pueblo Bonito and he pointed out a canyon wren that flew by.

A different perspective

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stands in a room at Pueblo Bonito, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Bernhardt said his visit and discussions with people about Chaco Canyon will influence the decision-making process.

“We fundamentally at the Department of the Interior manage all sorts of lands for all sorts of purposes,” Bernhardt said. “And the reality is that BLM has a complex mission of balancing a variety of uses and it is obviously very significant to come out and see structures like this.”

He said the U.S. Congress, the Department of the Interior and the state of New Mexico are all trying to manage the lands appropriately.

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Heinrich said visiting the landscape gives a different perspective that can’t be achieved just by looking at a map.

Bernhardt said the visit changed his perspective about Chaco Canyon in terms of its significance, structure and scope and size of the civilization.

“This was a major, major effort by humanity and we need to be thoughtful about that,” he said.

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

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