Months after the U.S. House passed a bill that would create a long-sought, 10-mile drilling ban on federal land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the Navajo Nation is demanding Congress cut the proposed protection zone in half.
The Navajo Nation Council said the measure seeking a reduction in the Chaco buffer zone, approved Thursday on a vote of 18-1, is in response to concerns about the effects it could have on Navajo people who own land in the area.
“What about the future generations that are going to be coming? How is this future legislation going to affect them, with those who want to get infrastructure?” Council Delegate Charlaine Tso said at the Thursday meeting in Window Rock, Ariz.
But New Mexico’s congressional delegates, who declared a victory in October when the oil and natural gas drilling ban passed the U.S. House, said the legislation doesn’t include development prohibitions on private or tribal lands.
In a joint statement Friday, the delegates, all Democrats, said the Navajo Nation Council’s resolution contains “misinformation that has unfortunately persisted.”
Environmentalists and leaders of New Mexico pueblos with ancestral ties to Chaco Canyon in the northwestern part of the state also celebrated the House’s passage of the buffer zone, which they said would ensure permanent protections of an oil-rich area that also has a wealth of cultural and archaeological resources.
The House passed the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, on a vote of 245-174 in October, with 17 Republicans joining Democrats.
In a statement after the vote, Luján said, “For at least a decade, drilling and extraction have threatened the sacred, ancestral homelands of the greater Chaco region, putting this treasured landscape at risk of desecration.”
The bill faces a tougher test in the Senate, where it has not yet moved from the Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
In December, however, President Donald Trump signed a federal spending package that includes a provision that essentially enacts the 10-mile buffer zone.
In the statement Friday, Luján and fellow U.S. Reps. Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small, and U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, pledged to continue working with the Navajo Nation and Native landowners.
“The legislation explicitly and fully protects the rights of the Navajo Nation and Navajo allottees to continue to develop their land now and in the future, as they see fit,” the statement said.
Nothing in the bill “affects the mineral rights of an Indian Tribe or member of an Indian Tribe to trust land or allotment land,” it continued.
Navajo leaders were in favor of the legislation when it passed the House. “The bill aims to protect the land, structures, and environment from any unanticipated adverse effects associated with unchecked oil and gas development in the region,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a news release at the time.
But Tso on Thursday accused Nez of caving to Democratic Party demands.
Council Delegate Amber Crotty was the only dissenting vote Thursday. Crotty did not respond to requests for comment.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso, who was not present for Thursday’s vote, called the resolution seeking a reduction in Chaco buffer zone an “embarrassment” in an interview with the Navajo Times.
Most of the land in the buffer zone belongs to the Navajo Nation and individual tribal members, who would retain their sovereignty and property rights. There are already more than 130 active oil and gas wells within the area, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
Still, advocates for the buffer zone believe it will prevent further encroachment.
J. Michael Chavarria, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, called Chaco Canyon an irreplaceable and unique center of spirituality in a statement issued Friday.
“We thank the New Mexico Congressional Delegation for their leadership and continued efforts alongside our member 20 Pueblo Nations to enact permanent protection of approximately 10 miles surrounding Chaco Canyon,” Chavarria said.