Legislation to permanently protect Greater Chaco Landscape passes House of Representatives

Pictured: The Chaco Landscape. The high desert of northwestern New Mexico supported the Chaco Culture for over 300 years.(Photo: New Mexico Wilderness Alliance)

Efforts to remove lands near Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future oil and gas lease sales moves closer to law

News Release

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance

Bipartisan legislation that would permanently protect the Greater Chaco Landscape passed the U.S. House of Representatives October 31 and now heads to the Senate. The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019 (H.R. 2181) would remove all public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) within ten miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park from consideration for future oil and gas lease sales, officially codifying a temporary moratorium on drilling in the region.

“The Pueblos of New Mexico and Texas are forever tied to the cultural resources found across the Greater Chaco Landscape,” said All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman Edward Paul Torres. “The integrity of this region ensures the continuance of our cultural traditions, and the well-being of our identity as handed down to us by our ancestors. On behalf of the Council, I want to thank Assistant Speaker Luján and his fellow lawmakers for their commitment to protecting the places that are most meaningful and vital to our Pueblo nations and communities.”

“We must do everything we can to protect the lands around Chaco before the region’s natural beauty is forever replaced by images of oil rigs and methane flares,” said Vice-Chairman and current Santa Clara Pueblo Governor Michael Chavarria. “It’s well past time for Interior to listen to the multitude of voices calling for the permanent preservation of our sacred lands. The legislation to protect Chaco from oil and gas development is exactly what this region needs.”

The House version of the Chaco protection legislation is sponsored by Assistant Speaker of the House Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) and is co-sponsored by a bipartisan array of representatives, including Representatives Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM). Senator Tom Udall (D-N.M.) is sponsoring an identical version of the bill in the Senate, which he originally introduced in 2018 along with co-sponsor Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.). The two versions of the bill were reintroduced in April 2019. Every member of New Mexico’s congressional delegation is co-sponsoring the legislation. The legislation is supported by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Navajo Nation, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, cultural and religious leaders, local communities, small businesses, environmental and conservation organizations, sportsmen groups, and more.

More than 90 percent of the lands in the Bureau of Land Management Farmington district have already been leased for oil and gas drilling and the greater Chaco area has long been a target for oil and gas companies. In early 2019, after immense pressure from diverse stakeholders, the Bureau of Land Management reversed course for a third time on a lease sale within the Greater Chaco area. Without this legislation, however, new lease sales would continue to be possible at the administration’s discretion.

Congressional and state-level leaders have combined efforts to protect the Greater Chaco Landscape while the legislation works its way through the congressional process. This spring, New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard issued a moratorium on oil and gas lease sales on state trust lands located within the ten-mile buffer zone defined by the federal legislation. In April, Assistant Speaker Lujan and Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) joined several of their colleagues on the House Committee on Natural Resources for a tour of Chaco to learn more about the impacts of oil and gas development in the region. A month later, Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt visited Chaco at the request of Sen. Heinrich to observe the threats to cultural resources poised by rampant development. Following the visit, Sec. Bernhardt agreed to extend an existing moratorium on oil and gas leasing within the ten-mile buffer zone for one more year.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently preparing a Resource Management Plan amendment that will outline the future of development projects in northwest New Mexico for years to come. Meanwhile, Sec. Bernhardt’s one-year moratorium expires in May 2020, potentially opening the Greater Chaco Landscape to further oil and gas development if the Chaco protection legislation has not been signed into law.

“Today’s vote solidifies a conservation legacy for Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the surrounding landscape, home to millennia of living history and sacred ancestral sites. This bipartisan and commonsense legislation in the face of this administration’s short-sighted energy policies will ensure protection of some of our country’s history and culture for current and future generations. But our work does not stop with today’s vote, as the Senate still needs to take up this legislation, and other national parks, culturally significant lands, wildlife and communities throughout the Southwest face similar threats.”
– Ernie Atencio, Southwest Regional Director, National Parks Conservation Association

“Chaco Canyon’s irreplaceable treasures need more than temporary protections. The House's passage of proactive legislation will help ensure future generations inherit a place that has not been permanently scarred by unchecked energy development. Now it’s the Senate’s turn to listen to the interests of the Pueblos and Navajo Nation, and the many who stand with them. We urge the Senate to act this year.”
-Michael Casaus, New Mexico state director of The Wilderness Society

“We are gratified to see several years of effort come to fruition with the House vote on Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act of 2019 (H.R. 2181). The Greater Chaco Landscape is such an important part of Pueblo and Tribal heritage and requires permanent protection. Thanks to our New Mexico delegation for their hard work on this bill.”

-Paul F. Reed, Archaeology Southwest

“With over 90% of Bureau of Land Management lands in the district already leased for oil and gas and threats of new development within the greater Chaco area occurring over and over again, this legislation is based on an obvious and commonsense line in the sand – America is not so weak and shortsighted to need to despoil a one of a kind World Heritage Site and a place considered sacred by tribes and pueblos. We know we’re bigger and better than that as a nation, and so does New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation. We stand with them and thank them for their leadership.”

-Mark Allison, Executive Director of New Mexico Wild.

“Conservation Lands Foundation stands with the Pueblos of New Mexico and the American Southwest in strong support of The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act (H.R. 2181). The Chaco region has seen enough oil and gas drilling. What it needs now is respect and protection. These living landscapes offer an irreplaceable window to the region's history, and continue to provide for contemporary indigenous cultures. We applaud the New Mexico congressional delegation for their leadership and commitment to protecting these national and cultural treasures.”
-Brian Sybert, Executive Director, Conservation Lands Foundation

“The remains of great houses, ceremonial structures, engineered roads and other irreplaceable treasures around Chaco Canyon help to tell the story of a thousand years of human history in this region. We applaud the House for passing common-sense legislation—which is supported by the entire New Mexico Congressional delegation as well as by thousands of people across the country—that will help ensure that this vital cultural link to the ancient Chacoan people is protected.”
-Tom Cassidy, Vice President of Government Relations and Policy, National Trust for Historic Preservation

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(Image: New Mexico Wild)
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