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NM Delegation Secures Protections for Chaco Canyon Area in Government Funding Bill

New provision prevents federal leasing in long-standing 10-mile buffer region while $1 million cultural resources study is ongoing; Bill covers federal leasing only and respects Tribal sovereignty over treatment of Tribal, allottee mineral rights

WASHINGTON— Today, U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.), the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), and Xochitl Torres Small (D-N.M.) announced that the final Fiscal Year 2020 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill includes key protections for the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The bill prevents the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from leasing oil, gas, and minerals on BLM land within a 10-mile radius of the park, reinforcing a long-standing “buffer zone” – developed in close coordination with the federal government, the state, the Navajo Nation and Pueblos -- to safeguard sacred sites and sensitive cultural items. The prohibition applies while a cultural resources investigation is undertaken in the area, which is funded by $1 million in the bill to allow Tribes to to identify culturally and historically significant areas. The bill also includes strong protections for Indian Tribes and allottees to make sure they can continue to develop their land for oil and gas.

“Today, Congress took a strong step forward in protecting Chaco Canyon, an irreplaceable landscape that is sacred to Tribes and holds deep meaning for people in New Mexico and around the country. For years, I have been proud to partner with the Navajo Nation and Pueblos who consider this land sacred to help secure critical protections and to uphold the long-standing buffer surrounding Chaco Canyon,” said Udall, lead Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies. “This provision respects the concerns of Tribes and the greater public, and it means protection for Chaco’s singular history and natural beauty from development – without affecting existing operations and respecting Tribal sovereignty over Tribal mineral rights within the 10-mile buffer zone. Between this appropriations bill and the administration’s assurances about its own self-imposed leasing halt during a review, we have made great strides towards protecting this national jewel and I will continue to work with Tribes for permanent protections.”

“The fragile historical and cultural sites in and around Chaco Culture National Historical Park possess a rich history that extends thousands of years,” Heinrich said. “This provision represents the ongoing efforts of the entire New Mexico delegation and I will work to ensure that we continue to protect these sacred landscapes.”

“This is a critical milestone in our fight to safeguard New Mexico’s sacred lands. Earlier this year, the House approved legislation to permanently protect Chaco Canyon from harmful oil and gas drilling, and while we still strive for permanent protections, I am pleased to see language codified into law to keep this land protected from desecration right now. Chaco Canyon is the ancestral homeland of thousands of New Mexicans, the Pueblos, Navajo Nation, and other Indigenous communities, which makes this sacred land with a rich cultural history. It is our responsibility to honor the legacy of the Chacoan people – and the indigenous communities who still call it home – and protect this incredible landscape for generations to come,” said Luján.

“Chaco Canyon is a special place for New Mexicans and it’s hallowed ground for the Pueblo people, that should be protected for future generations. This step moves forward  a plan that respects our sacred sites while allowing the allottees within the buffer zone to maintain their livelihoods. I look forward to continuing our work to protect Chaco, so our children and grandchildren don’t lose this beautiful, sacred place to the oil and gas industry,” said Haaland.  

“I am proud of the hard work and collaboration between New Mexico’s Congressional delegation, tribal leadership, and other stakeholders to ensure Chaco Canyon and its sacred lands are protected for generations to come.  This latest step by Congress re-affirms our shared commitment to tribal communities to honor our trust responsibility and protect sacred, ancestral lands like Chaco Canyon,” said Torres Small.

"As leaders of the Navajo Nation, we thank Congress for setting aside $1 million to complete a Cultural Resources Study of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. We understand that all oil and gas leasing activities will be prohibited during this period except for individual allottees who may continue to develop their mineral rights under the Indian Mineral Leasing Act. We thank Senators Udall and Heinrich for their continued leadership in protecting the Chaco landscape," said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

“On behalf of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, I would like to thank the New Mexico congressional delegation for this incredible accomplishment.  This legislation will protect extremely sensitive areas of Chaco Canyon and its surrounding cultural landscape, and it will pave the way for tribal experts to study and provide important cultural resource information to the federal government to facilitate better decision making about development.  Because of the work of the New Mexico congressional delegation, Chaco Canyon and its surrounding cultural landscape—a sacred place unlike any other that is interwoven into who the Pueblo people are today—will be protected and Native values and Native culture will inform its use,” said Chairman E. Paul Torres, All Pueblo Council of Governors.

The final Fiscal Year 2020 Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill also includes $1 million for Interior and New Mexico’s Pueblos and Navajo Nation to jointly conduct an ethnographic survey of the greater Chacoan region, a survey that that will explore the vast cultural resources that we know exist outside of the Park and in the broader Chacoan region. 

This April, the entire New Mexico delegation introduced the Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act of 2019, S. 1079, developed in close coordination with the Navajo Nation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which prevents any future leasing or development of minerals owned by the U.S. government on lands within an approximately 10-mile protected radius around Chaco – a long-standing buffer zone stretching back years. This includes many sites that are sacred and culturally important to the Pueblos and Navajo Nation. The legislation which passed the House in October, is supported by Navajo Nation, All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and Southwest Native Cultures, and many other organizations. The bill expressly does not affect the right of Indian Tribes and Tribal allottees to continue to develop their land.