Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Photo: John Fowler

'Enough is enough': Tribes endorse bill to protect ancestral lands from Trump

With backing from one of the first Native women in Congress, tribes are calling for a permanent ban on energy development on their ancestral lands in New Mexico.

The Trump administration has twice attempted to authorize oil and gas drilling on public lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. A bill introduced int the 116th Congress on Tuesday ensures the area is protected once and for all by imposing a buffer zone where development would be banned.

"As a member of Laguna Pueblo, Chaco Canyon is my ancestral homeland and it remains a living landscape, where we must honor the sacrifices of our ancestors," Rep. Deb Haaland (D-New Mexico) said on a conference call with reporters.

As the first Native person to serve as chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, Haaland will play a critical role in moving the legislation through her chamber. Pueblo and Navajo leaders from the state are vowing to help her out in order to protect an area where their ancestors built communities, held ceremonies and laid their loved ones to rest.

Indianz.Com on SoundCloud: Conference Call - Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act - April 9, 2019

"This landscape is part of our past, our present and our future," said J. Michael Chavarria, the governor of the Pueblo of Santa Clara, one of the tribes with connections to Chaco, located in the northwestern part of New Mexico.

"Until the area is permanently protected, we are living in a state of certainty and doubt," added Chavarria, who also serves as chairman of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council and vice chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors. "Our cultural sites and ancestral sites are put in danger every time the Bureau of Land Management engages in these sales because it encourages haphazard development."

President Jonathan Nez of the Navajo Nation echoed those concerns. He said the tribe supports the bill, known as the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, because it's about "protecting our land, protecting our way of life."

"This is one way to stand in unity, to say to this administration: enough is enough," Nez said, "that we want our lands not to be exploited from outside interests."

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

During the Obama era, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs started consulting with tribes and the public about a management plan for the Chaco area. But before it was completed, the Trump administration last year announced an an oil and gas lease sale on those lands.

Pressure from tribes and New Mexico's Congressional delegation prompted then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke to postpone the sale while the BLM and the BIA continue the work. But he's no longer in office, having resigned under what one lawmaker has called a "self-generated ethical hurricane," and yet another lease sale was proposed earlier this year, only for it to be deferred again.

"The Trump administration keeps proposing to sell new leases on sacred lands," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. "This ongoing threat of development is an affront to the tribes, who have a deep connection to this land.'

"'Some spaces," he added, "are just too special to lose," a sentiment that had been embraced by Zinke with respect to sacred tribal areas.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt promised to visit the Chaco area during his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of the Interior March 28, 2019. Photo: U.S. Department of the Interior

President Donald Trump has since nominated David Bernhardt, who currently serves as the Deputy Secretary of the Interior, to run the federal agency with the most responsibilities in Indian Country. He vowed to take an open mind toward the issue during his recent confirmation hearing.

"I would love to go to New Mexico and visit the site with you," Bernhardt told Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) at the March 28 hearing.

But Bernhardt, a longtime lawyer and lobbyist for the energy industry, was otherwise noncommittal about a request to exercise his authority to withdraw the area from development, something the Department of the Interior did during the Obama years. Instead, he said tribes and the public should rely on existing mechanisms to make their voices heard.

"I do think that the planning process probably provides an opportunity to provide include some alternatives that would be conservation oriented," said Bernhardt, who is from the neighboring state of Colorado. "But I'd like to get out there and see the site and talk about it."

The tribes have been willing participants in the federal process but as Chavarria put it: "It comes back down to meaningful consultation." To them, the repeated lease sales indicate a need for Congress to step in.

With the bill, "we send a very strong message to Washington," Chavarria said. "We must be understood that we will do all we can to take the resources that the Creator gifted to us and hand them down to our children and generations to come."

The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act bars development on 316,076 acres of minerals owned by the federal government. It does not affect minerals owned by individual Indians or tribal governments, Udall said.

Such provisions were added after "significant tribal consultation" with the Navajo Nation and other stakeholders, he said.

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 but lack permanent protections. These lands are a mix of federal, tribal, state and private holdings.

The Senate version of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is S.1079. A number for the House version is not yet available.

Separate from the legislation, New Mexico Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia-Richard will be issuing an executive order to bar new development on state-owned lands around Chaco. The document will be signed on April 27 at a meeting with tribes, she said.

"This is my commitment to put tribal concerns regarding state trust land before the bottom line of oil and gas companies," said Garcia-Richard, who is the first woman to win election to her post.

Additionally, the House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, which is part of the House Committee on Natural Resources, will hold a field hearing in Santa Fe, New Mexico, next Monday to discuss how oil and gas development affects the environment and sacred sites. Lawmakers will also be visiting Chaco on Sunday.

Rep. Haaland serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources. She will be participating in the visit to Chaco as well as the field hearing, which takes place at the New Mexico State Capitol at 10am Mountain time on April 15.

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