Editorial: Chaco protection buffer is sign of sense, compromise

By:  Albuquerque Journal Editorial Board

Who would have guessed that a Trump administration appointee with such close ties to the oil and gas industry would be willing to press pause on oil and gas leases on and near a historically and spiritually significant piece of land in New Mexico?

It’s a tongue-in-cheek question, but the fact remains that few detractors of newly minted Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt could have seen this coming.

Bernhardt – a former oil lobbyist appointed to the post earlier this year – has agreed to suspend oil and gas leasing on federal land that falls within a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Music to our ears.

The park holds tremendous cultural value, particularly to tribes with members directly descended from Chaco’s original inhabitants, the Ancestral Puebloans.

Bernhardt’s decision doesn’t address the issue forever, and it shouldn’t. Some would like to see a massive expansion of the buffer zone, which has been in place under earlier administrations. And some eschew almost all regulations.

By reaffirming the buffer, Bernhardt isn’t pandering to either side; instead, he is taking the wise stance that this is ultimately an issue for Congress to decide.

And on a more philosophical note, could Bernhardt’s show of good faith in New Mexico be a sign that across-the-aisle collaboration isn’t completely dead? Back in April, U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich took flak – including in letters published on the Journal’s op-ed pages – for breaking ranks with fellow Democrats to support Bernhardt’s confirmation. Heinrich defended that vote by observing that, while he didn’t expect to agree with the new secretary often, he considered Bernhardt to be an honest person who keeps his word.

Look at the fruit of that compromise: It was Heinrich who squired Bernhardt around Chaco last week before the buffer announcement. And to those who doubt Heinrich’s conservationist credentials, it is Heinrich – along with New Mexico’s U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland – who is spearheading legislation to permanently protect Chaco Canyon from future oil and gas development.

Hopefully, when the time comes to debate that measure, Bernhardt’s spirit of compromise will still be around.