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New Mexico Democrats file bill seeking permanent Chaco Canyon protection

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Tom Joyce

(The Center Square) - Five Congressmen and Senators from New Mexico introduced a bill that they hope will protect Chaco Canyon.

U.S. Senators Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury, and Gabe Vasquez, all Democrats from New Mexico, reintroduced the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act this week.

The bill hopes to protect Chaco Canyon and the “greater sacred landscape surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” according to a press release from Luján’s office.

The Greater Chaco landscape contains many sites sacred to the Native tribes.

This bill would prevent future leasing and development of oil, gas and minerals on non-Indian federal lands within a 10-mile radius of the park. The protection zone hopes to preserve sacred sites within Chaco Canyon.

The Navajo Nation recently voted to reject a proposed buffer around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, as well as a plan by the U.S. Department of the Interior to withdraw 351,000 acres from oil and natural gas leasing.

Two years ago, the Biden administration announced it would consider a 20-year Administrative Withdrawal of non-Indian federal lands in the 10-mile buffer zone. A two-year moratorium on new leasing and mineral development remains in effect as the Biden administration works to come to a decision. 

“By contrast, this legislation would provide permanent protections for the Greater Chaco Region by withdrawing non-Indian federal lands from new mineral development in perpetuity,” the release said.

Luján said that given the spiritual and cultural significance Chaco holds to local tribes, it deserves protection.

“Chaco Culture National Historical Park – and the Greater Chaco Region – is one of the world’s greatest treasures that must be protected for generations to come. Chaco holds deep spiritual and cultural significance for Tribes and Pueblos and is one of only a handful of World Heritage Sites in the United States,” he said in the release. “Alongside the New Mexico Delegation, I am proud to introduce legislation to permanently protect the Greater Chaco Region. This legislation is a longstanding priority for Pueblo and Tribal communities, environmental advocates, and the New Mexico Delegation to ensure we protect our sacred sites. I look forward to building support for this legislation, including in Congress and across New Mexico.”

Vasquez added that he sees the legislation as a way to preserve the area for future generations.

“The Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco Region are not just significant landscapes, but they are the footprints of our ancestors and hold deep meaning for many Tribes, Pueblos, and communities in northern New Mexico,” Vasquez said in the release. “I applaud the reintroduction of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which will provide urgently needed permanent protections to preserve the ancestral sites and cultural patrimony within Chaco Canyon and the surrounding landscape for generations to come.”

A summary of the bill is available here.