By Scott Turner | Albuquerque Journal
May 29, 2019

Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has agreed to put on hold any oil and gas leasing of federal land within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for one year.

Bernhardt made the decision after touring the park with Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., on Tuesday.

“We will take appropriate action to defer leasing within the 10-mile buffer during the next year, and we will respect the role of Congress under the property clause of the Constitution to determine how particular lands held by the federal government should be managed,” the secretary said in a release Tuesday.

Heinrich said the announcement would allow time for the Bureau of Land Management’s Resource Management Plan to be drafted and for Congress to consider the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, a bill he introduced with fellow New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall to withdraw federal lands around Chaco Canyon from further mineral development. U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small sponsored the bill in the House.

“Secretary Bernhardt committed to work with us on our legislation, as well as to consider additional ways in the RMP of respecting the Chaco Protection Zone, which surrounds the Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” Heinrich said. “While we plan for any future energy development in the San Juan Basin, protecting these sites is something we should all be able to agree on, and I’m optimistic about a productive path forward.”

Bernhardt and Heinrich met with tribal leaders during the tour.

The interior secretary said he walked away from the tour with “a greater sense of appreciation of the magnificent site managed by the National Park Service and a better understanding of the tribal leaders’ views of its cultural significance.”

“I have directed BLM to promptly publish a draft Resource Management Plan that includes an alternative that reflects the tribal leaders’ views and the proposed legislative boundaries,” he said.

The news would seem to be welcome to Udall.

“The 10-mile buffer zone has now been under two different administrations,” Udall told the Journal. “It’s one of the most important things we have going on out there to protect the resources that we have. We’ve now had two different secretaries (Ryan Zinke and Bernhardt) under this president try to have a lease within the 10-mile buffer zone. The buffer zone was specifically created to prevent any leasing activity going on.”

He said leasing activities under Zinke and Bernhardt were later withdrawn.

“With his own pen, he (Bernhardt) can protect it for 20 years,” Udall said.

Heinrich was criticized by members of his own party for voting to confirm Bernhardt.

“While we do not – and will not – agree on many issues or policy decisions, I have found that he has always kept his word,” Heinrich told the Journal. “I trust that he will keep his word in this case.”

Bernhardt’s decision was praised by Haaland and environmental advocacy groups New Mexico Wild and the Wilderness Society.

“The Interior Department’s announcement after visiting Chaco with Senator Heinrich is a breath of fresh air, literally,” Haaland said. “Keeping drilling from starting is part of the battle, and we can thank Senator Heinrich for securing that commitment from the Interior Secretary.”

New Mexico Oil and Gas communications director Robert McEntyre said he hoped the additional time will allow the department and Bureau to make an objective decision on the future of the San Juan Basin grounded in the facts.

“New Mexico has safely and responsibly produced oil and natural gas in the San Juan Basin for decades while protecting cultural and archaeological artifacts throughout the region,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the Albuquerque Journal.