Bernhardt commits to leasing moratorium near Chaco Canyon

By:  Scott Streater

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has agreed to defer oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius of New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park for at least a year after touring the park yesterday with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.).

Bernhardt's leasing moratorium is a major concession to mounting pressure from lawmakers like Heinrich, Native American tribal leaders and conservation groups to preserve the ancient ruins within the park, as well as the sensitive lands surrounding it, amid growing oil and gas development in the region.

"I walked away with a greater sense of appreciation of the magnificent site managed by the National Park Service and a better understanding of tribal leaders' views of its cultural significance," Bernhardt, who had not previously visited the site, said in a statement after the tour.

"We will take appropriate action to defer leasing within the 10 mile buffer during the next year, and we will respect the role of Congress under the property clause of the constitution to determine how particular lands held by the federal government should be managed," he added.

The moratorium comes as the Bureau of Land Management is working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to update the resource management plan (RMP) for the area. The updated RMP will address oil and gas development near the national historical park.

It follows the reintroduction of legislation sponsored by Heinrich and fellow New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall (D) that would ban oil and gas drilling and mining activity within a 10-mile buffer around the park (E&E News PM, April 9).

Heinrich, who invited Bernhardt to visit the park during a Senate confirmation hearing, said in a statement that the one-year moratorium "will allow time" for BLM to finish the revised RMP "and for Congress to consider the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act."

"Secretary Bernhardt committed to work with us on our legislation," Heinrich said.

The Interior Department and BLM have so far declined to support or oppose the bill, S. 1079.

That position sparked a sharp rebuke from Heinrich during a Senate subcommittee hearing that featured the bill (E&E Daily, May 15).

"If protection is premature at this time, then surely development is also premature," Heinrich told Mike Nedd, BLM's deputy director of operations, during the hearing.

Bernhardt said in his statement announcing the moratorium that he has "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."

There's no guarantee that alternative will ultimately be selected.

But House appropriators last week inserted language into a committee report accompanying an Interior-EPA funding bill that would block BLM from leasing lands within a 10-mile radius of the historical park (Greenwire, May 21).

Bernhardt's announcement drew cautious praise from conservation leaders, who note that the Trump administration has consistently proposed offering parcels for lease near the site before ultimately deciding to defer them.

"We are very glad that the Secretary has recognized the importance of the lands around Chaco and conceded the common sense approach of deferring leasing to consider longer term protections, both in a management plan and legislation," Nada Culver, senior counsel and director of the Wilderness Society's BLM Action Center, said in an emailed statement.

"Of course, we ultimately need that protection for generations, not months," she added.

Bernhardt's tour of the national historical park included a visit with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Brian Vallo, according to an article in the Farmington Daily Times.

Bernhardt was clearly impressed. "I'm blown away out here," the paper quoted him as saying.