A tough confirmation vote pays off at Chaco Canyon

By:  The New Mexican

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich has been soundly criticized for his votes to approve President Donald Trump’s nominees for secretary of the interior.

Critics want to know how Heinrich, a self-professed environmentalist, can vote in favor of nominees with industry ties — men who see public lands as places to exploit rather than areas the nation needs to preserve. Heinrich’s votes, first for Secretary Ryan Zinke and more recently, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, were not our favorite moves by the senator. Trump’s nominees were tainted, both because of their disregard for the role of public lands and work for industries that profit at public expense. Still, we believe Heinrich took his votes with the best of motives. What’s more, if Heinrich’s nay would have cost either Zinke or Bernhardt the job, his vote would have been different.

Still, it was clear Heinrich calculated that by voting in favor of the nominations, however suspect, he would keep lines of communication open to the Cabinet position so essential to the West. An interior secretary, after all, is responsible for grazing land, oil leases, national parks, the Bureau of Land Management and government services on Indian reservations. All are crucial to New Mexico.

And Heinrich’s calculated decision has garnered results. Bernhardt was invited to Chaco Canyon, and after the visit, announced last week that he will put on hold for a year leasing within the 10-mile perimeter around this sacred site. That will protect this important archaeological and historical site from overuse because of oil and gas drilling. For Pueblo and Navajo people, in particular, this recognizes the cultural importance of this site.

“I appreciated the opportunity to visit with Senator Heinrich and the tribal leaders today. I walked away with a greater sense of appreciation of the magnificent site managed by the National Park Service and a better understanding of the tribal leaders’ views of its cultural significance,” Bernhardt said. “I have directed BLM to promptly publish a draft Resource Management Plan that includes an alternative that reflects the tribal leaders’ views and the proposed legislative boundaries.”

That grace period will give the Bureau of Land Management time to draft the Resource Management Plan and for Congress to consider the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, a bill introduced by Heinrich and Sen. Tom Udall.

Tribal nations will be able to weigh in on what should happen to these important areas. The inclusion of Native people in decisions about Chaco and the surrounding lands is key to the right solution. Activism by tribes, individuals and residents near the area have been key in bringing attention to this crucial issue of preservation. Their work, of course, will continue.

Would Bernhardt have visited Chaco at the request of a senator who voted against him? We can’t say. We do know, however, that Zinke also came to New Mexico at Heinrich’s request.

After that visit, Zinke agreed to make New Mexico’s Sabinoso Wilderness more accessible to outdoors lovers. Again, that relationship might not have existed without a yes vote to confirm; Udall also voted for Zinke, although he opposed Berhnardt. Both senators wanted to open the Sabinoso Wilderness and knew support from Interior would be essential for that to happen.

Politics is a complicated process, a long game. Decisions are not always black and white. For a senator, sometimes it is better to vote yes for a nominee who will be confirmed anyway and keep lines of communication open. Heinrich’s “no” vote would not have kept either man out of Trump’s Cabinet. By voting yes, Heinrich has helped achieve important victories for New Mexico. That’s smart politics.