Tribes push to protect sacred New Mexico site from drilling

2 years 6 months 6 days ago Thursday, March 21 2019 Mar 21, 2019 March 21, 2019 3:01 PM March 21, 2019 in News - AP National

Associated Press

ACOMA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) - Native American leaders are banding together to pressure U.S. officials to ban oil and gas exploration around a sacred tribal site that features massive stone structures and other remnants of an ancient civilization but are facing the Trump administration's pro-drilling stance.

Creating a formal buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park has been a long-running issue, but tribes are pushing for further protections as U.S. officials revamp the management plan for the area surrounding the world heritage site as well as large portions of northwestern New Mexico and southern Colorado.

Federal officials repeatedly have denied drilling leases within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of the park as tribes, environmentalists and archaeologists have raised concerns about the potential effects on culturally significant sites like ceremonial structures called kivas outside Chaco's boundaries.

A thousand years ago, the site was a ceremonial and economic hub for the Pueblo people, historians say.

Tribes in New Mexico are gathering Thursday at Acoma Pueblo, a Native American community about 60 miles (97 kilometers) west of Albuquerque, amid the All Pueblo Council of Governors monthly meeting.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, head of the largest American Indian reservation, also attended, along with New Mexico officials and two members of the state's congressional delegation.

The tribes want specific language in the area's federal management plan that would prevent drilling near the park, instead of protesting four times a year when the energy industry requests lease sales on certain parcels.

"I think it's unlikely with the administration the way it is, but this is all part of the process," said Keegan King, a member of the pueblo council's Natural Resources Committee. "The tribes are organized and are going to be doing everything they can."

President Donald Trump's administration has aggressively pushed to open more public lands to energy development. It also went against the wishes of tribes and others by scaling back two national monuments in Utah that protected tribal artifacts and other sensitive land.

Lawmakers and tribal leaders said at a congressional committee hearing this month that a 2017 Trump administration review of lands protected nationwide by past presidents didn't take tribal interests into account despite some of the lands being sacred to them.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico said Thursday that legislation will be reintroduced soon in Congress to protect the land around Chaco Canyon. He said he would not trust the Trump administration to include protections in the federal plan for the area.

"Let's not leave Chaco to the whims of one administration or another," he said. "We have a sense that this place is incredibly important and deserves protection."

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard said an executive order from her office is expected next month that would make state land around Chaco off-limits to any oil and gas leasing. Most of the land surrounding the park is federal and tribal land.

Accessible only by rough dirt roads, Chaco takes effort to reach, and supporters say they want to protect the sense of remoteness that comes with making the journey along with the ancient features that remain.

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