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Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park last year. Two of New Mexico’s federal lawmakers are seeking a 10-mile buffer around the park restricting oil and gas drilling.

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Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park last year. Two of New Mexico’s federal lawmakers are seeking a 10-mile buffer around the park restricting oil and gas drilling.
Two of New Mexico’s federal lawmakers are introducing legislation to create a permanent 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which has become a battleground between energy interests and those concerned about protecting the environment and the region’s Indigenous heritage.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and Sen. Ben Ray Luján have introduced legislation to bar leasing and future fossil fuel development in a 10-mile zone around the UNESCO World Heritage site, which has deep cultural significance but is also oil-rich.
The lawmakers are spearheading the effort a year after President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous woman to head that agency, first promised to do so.
The bicameral bill is the latest legislative effort to embed a Chaco Canyon buffer into law, with the aim of preventing a future president from reversing it.
In 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill to create the buffer, but it stalled in the then-GOP-controlled Senate.
“The senator supports the [Biden] administration’s efforts related to Chaco but also believes it’s important to permanently protect Chaco in law,” Luján’s spokeswoman, Katherine Schneider, wrote in an email.
Schneider declined to answer how confident Luján was that a version of the bill could make it to Biden’s desk to sign before Republicans, who are generally staunch industry advocates, take over the House.
“We are pushing to get this done as soon as possible, but it will require bipartisan support [in] both this Congress or next Congress,” she wrote.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, contends ample protections are already in place, plus companies looking to drill must adhere to the National Historic Preservation Act.
The proposed buffer would have adverse economic impacts on Navajos who own land and energy rights within the zone, Sgamma wrote in an email. Navajo Nation passed tribal legislation offering a 5-mile buffer as a compromise, she added.
“These lawmakers continue to ignore the needs of 5,500 members of the Navajo Nation who collectively earn about $6.2 million in royalties every year to support their families and continue to ignore the sensible compromise from the tribe,” she wrote.
The restrictions wouldn’t apply to state or private lands, including the tracts that Native Americans came to own through a 19th century law that sought to break up tribal lands into smaller pieces by granting parcels to members who became known as allottees.
Still, Sgamma echoed the argument that putting adjacent lands off-limits would affect tribal members’ rights because “it is not possible to develop isolated tracts of land.”
Another industry advocacy group agreed, describing in an email the mix of federal and allottee lands as being “checker-boarded.”
“These lands consist of remote uninhabited areas that lack roads and any type of infrastructure such as water, power lines or pipelines,” wrote Joe Vigil, spokesman for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association. “It is impossible to access the Navajo allotments without crossing federal minerals, which requires, at the very least, the issuance of [Bureau of Land Management] rights of way.”
The proposed legislation comes as the Interior Department explores a broader withdrawal of federal land from fossil fuel operations.
The agency recently released an assessment that estimates the Chaco buffer would stop only a few dozen wells from being drilled. But the industry chafes against any government effort to significantly reduce extraction.
Environmentalists and tribal advocates note that existing leases outside the proposed buffer are not affected. That includes 45,000 acres in the Chaco region approved for lease under the Trump administration, a decision upheld by Biden.
In response, they sent a 5,000-signature petition to Haaland in September, protesting her agency’s decision to honor the leases. But drilling permits are still being approved on the parcels.
Kyle Tisdale, a Western Environmental Law Center attorney who assisted with the litigation, said the 10-mile buffer would be a good start, but the protections must be broadened because negative impacts on the air, water, climate and communities don’t end at an arbitrary boundary.
“It is a step in the right direction but is not sort of a silver bullet to addressing the broader landscape level impacts,” Tisdale said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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