The New Mexico legislature introduces a law to protect Chaco Canyon

Nov. 18 – Two of New Mexico’s federal legislatures introduce 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 with protecting the environment and the indigenous heritage of the region.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and Sen. Ben Ray Luján have introduced legislation on bar leasing and future fossil fuel development in a 10-mile zone around the UNESCO World Heritage Site, which is of great cultural importance but also rich in wealth oil is.

The lawmakers are leading the effort a year after President Joe Biden and Home Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Indigenous woman to head that agency, first pledged to do so.

The bicameral act is the legislature’s latest attempt to embed a Chaco Canyon buffer into law with the goal of preventing a future president from reversing it.

In 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill creating the buffer, but it stalled in the then GOP-controlled Senate.

“The senator supports them [Biden] government’s efforts related to Chaco, but also believes it is important to provide continued legal protection for Chaco,” Luján’s spokeswoman Katherine Schneider wrote in an email.

Schneider declined to comment on how confident Luján was that a version of the bill could make it to Biden’s desk for signature before Republicans, who are generally staunch supporters of the industry, take over the House.

“We are urging this to be done as soon as possible, but it will require bipartisan support [in] both this Congress and the next Congress,” she wrote.

Kathleen Sgamma, President of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, maintains that extensive protections are already in place and that companies wishing to drill must comply with 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. The Navajo Nation passed tribal law that included a 5-mile buffer as a compromise, she added.

“These legislators continue to ignore the needs of 5,500 members of the Navajo Nation, who collectively earn about $6.2 million each year in royalties to support their families, and continue to ignore the tribe’s reasonable compromise,” she wrote.

The restrictions would not apply to state or private lands, including lands held by Native Americans through a 19th-century law that sought to divide tribal lands into smaller chunks by giving members what became known as allotments plots granted.

Still, Sgamma reiterated the argument that closing off neighboring lands would affect the rights of tribal members because “it’s not possible to develop isolated tracts of land.”

Another industry advocacy group agreed, describing the mix of state and allocation country as “checkerboard-like” in an email.

“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 least the issuance of rights of way (Bureau of Land Management).”

The proposed legislation comes as the Home Office investigates a broader phase-out of states from fossil-fuel operations.

The agency recently released an assessment that estimated the Chaco buffer would only keep a few dozen wells from being drilled. But the industry balks at any government effort to significantly reduce production.

Environmentalists and tribal advocates note that existing leases outside of the proposed buffer will not be affected. That includes 45,000 acres in the Chaco region approved for lease under the Trump administration, a decision endorsed by Biden.

In response, they sent a 5,000-signature petition to Haaland in September, protesting their agency’s decision to honor the leases. However, drilling permits for the parcels are still being approved.

Kyle Tisdale, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center who is supporting the lawsuit, said the 10-mile buffer was a good start, but protections need to be expanded because the negative impacts on air, water, climate and communities don’t end there an arbitrary limit.

“It’s a step in the right direction, but not a silver bullet for addressing broader landscape impacts,” Tisdale said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.