ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation are putting more pressure on U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to take administrative action to prohibit oil and gas development outside the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The lawmakers in a letter sent this week wrote that while there have been numerous short-term protections granted for the area over the years, an administrative withdrawal of federal mineral rights would provide long-term certainty pending legislation that calls for permanent protections.
Haaland is from Laguna Pueblo in central New Mexico and is the first Native American to be appointed to a cabinet position. Her office tells The Associated Press that a decision about the Chaco area has yet to be made.
In October, top officials with the largest Native American tribe in the United States renewed a request for congressional leaders to hold a field hearing before deciding on federal legislation that would limit oil and gas development around Chaco park.
Leaders of the Navajo Nation Council have said that individual Navajo allottees stand to lose an important source of income if a 10-mile (16-kilometer) buffer is created around the park as proposed. They’re calling for a smaller area of federal land holdings to be made off limits to development as a compromise to protect Navajo interests.
Other tribes, environmental groups and archaeologists have been pushing to stop drilling across an expansive area of northwestern New Mexico, saying sites beyond Chaco’s boundaries need protection and that the federal government’s leasing program needs an overhaul.
Haaland was among the sponsors of legislation calling for greater protections during her tenure in the U.S. House. She has referred to the area as a sacred place.
U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Lujan and Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernández called Chaco an important cultural and historical area.
“Chaco Canyon is home to ancient dwellings, artifacts and sacred sites," the New Mexico Democrats wrote. "However, drilling and extraction have threatened the sacred ancestral homelands within the greater Chaco region, putting this treasured landscape at risk of desecration.”
A World Heritage site, Chaco park is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon.