This bill — the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019 — would withdraw federal land within a 10-mile buffer of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico from entry under hardrock mining laws and from mineral and geothermal leasing activities, subject to valid existing rights. It would also terminate any existing leasing agreements in the withdrawal area that are not producing by the end of their initial terms.
- Not enactedThe President has not signed this bill
- The senate has not voted
Committee on Energy and Natural Resources
- senate Committees
- The house Passed October 30th, 2019Roll Call Vote 245 Yea / 174 Nay
National Parks, Forests, and Public LandsCommittee on Natural ResourcesEnergy and Mineral ResourcesIntroducedApril 9th, 2019
- house Committees
What is House Bill H.R. 2181?
Cost of House Bill H.R. 2181
In-Depth: Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) introduced this bill to withdraw the federal lands around Chaco Canyon from further mineral development:
“This effort will preserve the greater Chaco region for generations to come. Chaco Canyon is sacred land that has been home to some of the most resilient communities in history, and it is our responsibility to protect against efforts that would destroy the legacy of the Chacoan people and other indigenous communities or harm these beautiful public lands. We must do everything possible to defend the greater Chaco area by halting future oil and gas development in the area, and I’m proud to support legislation that will further address the environmental, health, economic, and cultural needs of this region.”
After this bill passed the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Luján said:
“Oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco region would destroy that beautiful and sacred landscape and would permanently impact New Mexicans’ health and quality of life. Passing my legislation to protect Chaco through the Natural Resources Committee today creates critical momentum to permanently ban oil and gas drilling. Critically, this legislation also sends a clear message that we will not allow the destruction of sacred lands by companies seeking to prohibit. I will continue to fight to protect this world- renowned site that holds significant cultural value to New Mexicans, Tribal communities, and the Pueblos. I implore the House to pass this bill so future generations may enjoy Chaco Canyon.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Deb Haaland (D-AZ), Chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, adds:
“It’s important that we protect Chaco Canyon, both because it is a sacred place that should be valued the same way we value other sacred places, but also because public lands must be protected. However, time and again this special place has been put up to be exploited by big oil companies. By introducing these protections we’re going beyond protecting a beautiful piece of New Mexico, we’re recognizing the significance Chaco holds for the Native American community and to all New Mexicans. By keeping Chaco from being destroyed by the fossil fuel industry, future generations will have access to this special place.”
“Thank you Senator Udall and Senator Heinrich, for your leadership, and your unceasing commitment to support the efforts of our tribal nations in the preservation of the Greater Chaco Region. This land is a part of our histories as tribal nations, and holds life-affirming resources that many of our Pueblos still remember and use, as a vital part of our present identity through story, song, prayer, and pilgrimage. This landscape is a part of our past, present, and our future. Once these areas are developed, they are gone forever. We hope the reintroduction of this bill sends a strong message to Washington - that it must be understood that we will do all we can to take these resources our Creator gifted us and hand them to our children and our generations to come. We thank you Senators, the Navajo Nation, and the New Mexico State Land Office for our unified support in this movement to protect Greater Chaco.”
The Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and 45 other organizations and tribes wrote a joint letter in support of this bill in June 2019. Their letter, addressed to the New Mexico Congressional delegation, discussed the Chaco Canyon’s important cultural, historical, and archaeological resources and thanked the delegation for its efforts to protect it:
“Chaco Canyon and the surrounding landscape hold remarkable examples of ceremonial buildings, distinctive great houses, and an elaborate network of engineered roads that link Chaco Canyon with outlying sites. This landscape was designated a World Heritage Site in 1987 for preserving outstanding elements of Chacoan culture, which dominated the region from the mid-9th to early 13th centuries. Energy development associated with the Mancos-Gallup Shale formation in northwest New Mexico has increasingly threatened cultural resources and the broader landscape affiliated with Chaco. Recognizing this threat, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the Greater Chaco Landscape among America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places in 2011. In September 2017, Archaeology Southwest released a new report summarizing recent research by the archaeological and academic communities on the Greater Chaco Landscape that underscores the critical need to enhance protections for the area. Thank you for introducing the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act and for your continued leadership in protecting this important cultural landscape.”
In their dissenting views to this bill’s committee report, House Natural Resources Committee Republicans characterized this bill as an example of “Committee Democrats’ pattern of partisan intransigence.” They argued that this bill would hurt New Mexico’s economy by eliminating key revenue sources for future public investments, undermine responsible energy development, and jeopardize Indian allottees’ futures:
“This [bill] would have a deeply negative long-term economic impacts on the State of New Mexico, eliminate key revenue sources for future public investments, and undermine a range of economic activities associated with responsible energy development. In fiscal year 2013 the combined revenues from oil and gas for the four counties that are near the proposed moratorium area was $198.2 million. This permanent ban would also jeopardize the financial future of thousands of Indian allottees by making it virtually impossible for them to develop the energy resources they own. The bill claims not to affect allottee mineral rights, but the reality is that many allottee lands are surrounded by federal lands that would be withdrawn by this legislation. This will create significant access and extraction complications for the Indian allottees along with any companies they partner with and will lead to a de facto extraction ban on their lands. At the June 5, 2019, hearing on H.R. 2181, the Natural Resources Committee heard testimony from Debora Hesuse, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, Nageezi chapter, and an Indian allottee who owns mineral resources in the proposed area. Ms. Hesuse testified that [this bill] would ‘put many of our mineral rights off limits and stop a much-needed source of income to feed, shelter, clothe and protect our families.’ Ms. Hesuse also submitted for the record a petition signed by 131 Navajo allot[t]ees opposing this legislation, as well as two resolutions from the Huerfano and Nageezi Navajo chapters, which are closest to this area, expressing support for the Navajo allotment landowners and recognizing their opposition to this bill.”
Committee Republicans also objected to Committee Democrats’ refusal to accept their amendments to this bill:
“During markup of H.R. 2181, several amendments offered by Republicans seeking to address flaws in the bill were rejected on largely party line votes. Among these was an amendment offered by Congressman Paul Gosar that would have delayed implementation of this legislation until the Department of the Interior is able to properly confirm that this withdrawal will not adversely affect mineral rights held by Native Americans in the area. Also offered at the markup was an amendment from Congresswoman Liz Cheney that would have simply provided recognition for the Indian allottee opposition to the bill by adding one line to the bill's findings section. These amendments were rejected by Committee Democrats, and the legislation advanced without a single Republican vote.”
This legislation passed the House Natural Resources Committee by a 19-14 party-line vote with the support of 10 bipartisan House cosponsors, including nine Democrats and one Republican. Its Senate companion is sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) with the support of one Senate cosponsor, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM).
A range of Native American, environmental advocacy, and cultural preservation groups support this bill. They include the Navajo Nation (although the Huerfano and Nageezi Navajo chapters oppose this bill), All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Southwest Native Cultures, Archaeological Institute of America (AIA), National Trust for Historic Preservation, Conservation Lands Foundation, and others support this bill.
Of Note: Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a national park and World Heritage Site (WHS) that was the center of ancestral Puebloan culture. It’s known for its still-standing multi-story buildings, which are relics of a culture that spread throughout and dominated the Four Corners area from the ninth through eleventh centuries.
Today, many modern-day pueblos and tribes in the Four Corners area (the southwestern corner of Colorado, southeastern corner of Utah, northeastern corner of Arizona, and northwestern corner of New Mexico) claim cultural affiliation with and descent from the Chacoan people. Consequently, the Chaco Canyon is sacred to Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other Pueblo Indians.
Archaeological research in Chaco has yielded over 1.5 million documents and archival documents to date. It’s estimated that there are still over 5,000 artifacts in the greater Chaco region, as well as potentially thousands more that have yet to be identified or disclosed. Because of this, pueblos and tribes in New Mexico and Arizona have been raising concerns about oil and gas drilling encroaching ever-closer to Chaco Canyon for at least the last decade.
Chaco Canyon, the site of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, is in the San Juan Basin. This basin has been one of the United States’ most productive natural gas basis for decades; and there may also be oil resources near the peak. Approximately 90% of the basin’s federal lands have been leased out by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). These include several areas that overlap with Chacoan roads, villages, and other highly sensitive resources. To date, however, the lands immediately surrounding Chaco Canyon haven’t been intensively leased and drilled — therefore, they’re some of the last undeveloped lands in the San Juan Basin.
In 2018, the Trump administration proposed to issue new oil and gas leases in the landscape around Chaco Canyon — including some that are very close to an important archaeological site that’s part of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park’s WHS designation. This recommendation was being made over the objection of the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), which represents the nineteen pueblos in New Mexico, and one pueblo in Texas. Accordingly, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) filed a Notice of Competitive Oil and Gas Internet-Based Lease Sale for 25 parcels of land in New Mexico, with a March 8, 2018 sale date.
In response to the administration’s proposal and the March 8 lease sale, the APCG lodged a formal protest on January 4, 2018. The APCG noted that the areas proposed for development contain historic pueblo properties and traditional cultural properties, and might be eligible under federal criteria for listing as historic properties on the National Register of Historic Places. It also argued that the BLM’s sale and issuance of oil and gas leases on the lands in question violates the National Historic Preservation Act due to failure to analyze and identify the pueblos’ respective historic properties and traditional cultural properties potentially in the affected areas.
APCG has also passed four resolutions in recent years calling on BLM to stop issuing new oil and gas leases and permits near Chaco Canyon until new protections can be adopted through the ongoing land use planning process that BLM is jointly leading with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This request has been echoed by the Navajo Nation and National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), as well as Sens. Udall and Heinrich and Rep. Luján.
Early this year, in June 2019, the House imposed a one-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park when it passed an amendment to that effect that Rep. Luján offered to the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies appropriations package. Rep Luján’s office called the one-year moratorium “an environmental victory for the greater Chaco region” and “a major step toward a permanent ban” to protect the area’s land in perpetuity.
- Sponsoring Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) Press Release
- Statements of Support
- Archaeological Institute of America (AIA) and Others Letter (In Favor)
- All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) Press Release (In Favor)
- Sierra Club Press Release (In Favor)
- Greater Chaco Coalition Press Release (In Favor)
- CBO Cost Estimate
- Senate Sponsor Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) Bill Summary
- House Natural Resources Committee Report
- Office of the Navajo Nation Press Release After Committee Passage
- All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) Formal Protest (Context)
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / powerofforever)