On Monday, the U.S. Interior Department announced a plan to protect more than 4,000 acres in an Indigenous area of southern Sandoval County near Placitas known as Buffalo Tract. The plan would bar new oil drilling and mining for 50 years.
The proposed withdrawal is on four separate tracts and contains known archaeological resources that range from as early as the prehistoric Paleoindian period through the historic Statehood period and beyond.
“We’re responding to calls from tribes, elected leaders and community members who want to see these public lands protected,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.
Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, has pushed legislation since 2016 to prevent gravel mining in the area, but his efforts have stalled. Heinrich’s proposal, called The Buffalo Tract Protection Act, would make the ban permanent.
“The Buffalo Tract is clearly the wrong place for a gravel mine,” Heinrich said. “It is time we put an end to this years-long debate and withdraw these parcels from future mineral development.”
The Buffalo Tract area included in the four parcels is considered sacred to the Santa Ana and San Felipe Pueblos. Open-pit mining of gravel produces a class of particulates associated with desert winds and disturbed soil and can cause health problems, specifically respiratory health (lungs and airway) and secondary issues such as heart problems. Larger particles can stay in the air for minutes or hours and can travel as little as a hundred yards or as much as 30 miles. Smaller particles can stay in the air for days or weeks and can travel even farther, as in many hundreds of miles.
“This public land is intermixed with residential communities and are important landscapes for the Pueblo of Santa Ana, the Pueblo of San Felipe, the people of Placitas, and the Merced De Comunidad De San Antonio De Las Huertas land grant,” Heinrich said.
In the latter half of the 1990s, local supporters united in their opposition to any new gravel mining on the four tracts behind the legislation. Community members began to organize opposing any expansion of sand and gravel mining on BLM land, including the Buffalo Parcel. Their fears were concern for their health, that the mining would further damage the environment, drive out residents and halt in-migration into the Placitas area, diminishing the economic impacts of the community.
In a statement, U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury said she has teamed up with Heinrich on the bill and will continue leading the effort in the House to embed into law Haaland’s and President Joe Biden’s policy decision.
There is a 90-day public comment period on the proposal which began on Monday. The BLM will host a public meeting at the Placitas Community Library on Nov. 14.