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U.S. Interior Department finalizes fossil fuel, mining ban near Chaco Canyon

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Jacob Fischler

(Colorado Newsline) The federal government will not issue new oil and gas or mining leases on federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, the U.S. Interior Department said Friday.

The public lands order from the department’s Bureau of Land Management will stay in effect for 20 years. The order said about 340,000 acres in the Chaco Canyon area would be protected. The area of northwestern New Mexico is culturally significant to the region’s Native American communities.

The final order is nearly identical to a promise President Joe Biden outlined in November 2021 that won praise from Indigenous leaders.

“Today marks an important step in fulfilling President Biden’s commitments to Indian Country by protecting Chaco Canyon, a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors have called this place home since time immemorial,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a former U.S. representative from the area that includes Chaco Canyon and the first Native American person to hold a Cabinet position, said in a statement.

The order applies only to federal lands and to new leases. Existing rights and lands managed by state, tribal or private interests will not be affected.

Chaco Canyon is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains structures built during the height of the Chacoan society between the years 850 and 1,250, according to the Interior Department.

The BLM has not issued new oil and gas leases within the area for 10 years, and the administration paused new mining leases in early 2022 while the agency considered a long-term ban.

Members of New Mexico’s all-Democrat congressional delegation have pushed for protections for the area. In a statement Friday, the members — Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury and Gabe Vasquez — said they would continue to pursue legislation to establish permanent protections.

“We applaud this historic step to protect Chaco’s irreplaceable resources for future generations,” they wrote. “We remain committed to working alongside all of the Pueblos, Tribal Nations, and New Mexicans who have called for legislation that will ensure permanent protections for this landscape.”

Heinrich wrote Haaland in May 2021 — six months before Biden’s public pledge — asking for an administrative withdrawal similar to the one issued Friday.

National conservation groups and congressional Democrats cheered the move.

“A place as special and sacred as Chaco Canyon deserves protections that extend beyond the park’s limited boundaries,” U.S. House Natural Resources Committee ranking Democrat Raúl Grijalva of Arizona said in a statement. “The Biden administration’s move to ban new fossil fuel development in the area is a fitting testament to the decades of hard-fought advocacy by the tribes with ties to the region.”

Republican leaders on the committee, though, criticized the measure for blocking economic development.

House Natural Resources Chairman Bruce Westerman, a Republican from Arkansas, said the order would unnecessarily block potentially fruitful activity. Areas around the historic site could be developed without sacrificing the site itself, he said.

“Chaco Canyon is already protected,” Westerman said. “No one is disputing that. This announcement is creating an arbitrary 10-mile ‘buffer zone’ that will lock up resources that could provide $1 billion in revenues over 20 years.”

Most Native American communities in the area have supported the move. But Navajo Nation citizens that were allotted land and mineral rights in federal treaties have expressed opposition, which Westerman also noted.

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