Navajo activist Daniel Tso speaks out against energy development in the greater Chaco Canyon area at a rally in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on April 17, 2018. Photo: Niko Dellios
Environment | National | Politics

Tribes back bill to protect ancestral lands from Trump's energy push

Tribal leaders are endorsing a bill that would prevent the Trump administration from allowing energy development on their ancestral lands in New Mexico.

Pressure from tribes already prompted the Department of the Interior to delay an oil and gas lease sale on federal lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the northwestern part of the state. But Pueblo and Navajo leaders say that's not enough so they are calling for a permanent ban on drilling in an area where their ancestors built communities, held ceremonies and laid their loved ones to rest.

"For our people these sacred places are an essential connection to our past, to our culture as Pueblo people and to our ancestors that still reside in this place," Governor Val Panteah of the Pueblo of Zuni said in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.

President Russell Begaye of the Navajo Nation agreed with that description of Chaco Canyon and the surrounding lands. He said they were "invaluable and irreplaceable" to his people.

"The time to act is now," Begaye said of the bill, called the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act

Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, is sponsoring the bill. While he previously credited the Trump administration for listening to tribes about the lease sale, he believes the area needs further protections.

"The footprint of this civilization is very much larger than we originally believed," Udall said. Despite an ongoing study of the cultural resources there, he said the "greater Chaco area is threatened by energy development.”

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) is co-sponsoring the measure. Even though Chaco Canyon was one of the first areas protected when the Antiquities Act became law in 1906, he said changing priorities in the executive branch leave the area susceptible.

"Unfortunately the Trump administration's track record with regard to our natural and cultural heritage ... means that we must be vigilant in defending Chaco," said Heinrich, noting that tribes were ignored when President Donald Trump dismantled the Bears Ears National Monument in neighboring Utah, a move that also eased the way for energy development on sacred and ancestral lands.

The lease sale at issue was supposed to take place March 8. Just days prior, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke announced that he was postponing it while the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs continue their study of the greater Chaco area.

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico was occupied by ancestors of today's Pueblo tribes. The Navajo Nation also has ties to the site. Photo: Andrew Kearns

"Interior will defer upcoming oil and gas leases in #NewMexico so we can further study impact on cultural resources," Zinke wrote in a March 1 post on Twitter.

The cultural study was initiated toward the end of the Obama administration. The BLM and the BIA are supposed to identify possible areas where development might be prohibited around Chaco. They are also collaborating on archaeological and ethnographic studies in the region.

But the work still hasn't been completed so tribes are supporting a legislative solution.

"Once this area is developed, it is gone forever," said Edward Paul Torres, the chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents the 20 Pueblo tribes in New Mexico and Texas. The organization supports the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act.

According to Sen. Udall and Sen. Heinrich, their bill would withdraw 316,076 acres of oil, natural gas, coal and other minerals owned by the federal government from development. Resources owned by others -- including tribes and individual Indians -- would not be affected. Existing leases would not be canceled either if the bill were to become law.

The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a federal site that consists of nearly 34,000 acres. It is home to thousands of archaeological and cultural sites, including large and complex villages where the ancestors of tribes throughout the Southwest once lived.

Another 900,000 acres surrounding the park are considered sensitive and lack permanent protections. Those lands are a mix of federal, tribal, state and private holdings.

Related Stories:
Pueblo tribes seek ban on energy development on ancestral land in New Mexico (September 27, 2017)
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