Interior Backtracks on Plans to Drill in Sacred New Mexico Canyon, For Now

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In a rare but potentially brief turn, Department of the Interior Secretary David Bernhardt—a man infamously known for his conflict of interests with the oil and gas industry—did something...good?

Bernhardt joined Sen. Martin Heinrich and Diné (Navajo Nation) leaders in New Mexico for a tour of Pueblo Benito and the Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Tuesday. The next day, he issued a statement calling for a year-long moratorium on any drilling activities within a 10-mile buffer zone around the park, an area covering roughly 316,000 acres.

The fight to protect Chaco Canyon has been raging since President Donald Trump assumed office and began methodically rolling back the protective measures established by the Obama administration related to drilling on or near tribal land. Recently, the pushback has gained widespread support among New Mexico officials—in late April, New Mexico’s state land commissioner issued an executive order declaring 73,000 acres around the park off-limits for oil and gas leasing.


Rep. Deb Haaland, Pueblo of Laguna, made environmental and tribal land protection one of the core features of her successful and historic 2018 campaign. Since joining Congress, Haaland, along with fellow New Mexico Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Xochitl Torres Small, has championed H.R. 2181, a bill that would permanently ban all future drilling and mineral development in the Chaco Canyon buffer zone. She responded to Bernhardt’s announcement with a statement praising the decision and declaring her intentions to see the buffer zone through to permanency.

“Next week, I will be hosting a hearing on our delegation’s bill to permanently protect Chaco in my subcommittee,” Haaland wrote. “Senators Udall and Heinrich and Representatives Ben Ray Luján and Xochitl Torres Small and I will continue to fight to ensure future generations can enjoy this meaningful world heritage site, and the Pueblo people still have access to our ancient homelands for years to come.”


That said, be careful before you give Bernhardt too much credit—his actions regarding the Chaco site are obviously limited in scope with the time limit, as there’s no telling what the Interior’s plans for the region are come next summer. And it’s certainly not emblematic of the Secretary’s relationship with the rest of Indian Country.

In Montana, Northern Cheyenne president Rynalea Whiteman Pena sent a letter to Bernhardt on Tuesday decrying the Interior’s decision last week to approve coal leasing on their land without first consulting the tribe. (The lack of tribal consultation under both previous Secretary Ryan Zinke and Bernhardt has been atrocious, even according to the federal government itself.)


So, Chaco Canyon is safe for the time being. But that’s more thanks to the hard work of the New Mexico congressional delegation than it is a Big Oil crony suddenly finding his conscience.