Welcome to Santa Fe, Mr. Secretary. It is exciting to have the head of the U.S. Department of Interior in our state — after all, New Mexico is a state where management of public lands, cultural resources and the affairs of Indian tribes is essential to our daily lives.
Having Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt in Santa Fe offers the opportunity to share our values with this essential organization. The work of Interior impacts every woman, man and child in this state. That’s why it has been troubling to see a series of Interior secretaries who view public lands and their assets as something to exploit rather than preserve.
In New Mexico, public lands are more than a place for industry to stake a claim. There’s room for the business of extracting oil, gas or minerals and for harvesting timber, but those uses cannot come before the protection of land, water and rich cultural treasures.
Currently, federal land use plans across the West are being revised, with the clear signal from above that it’s time to drill baby drill. Since 2017, the Trump administration has offered more than 18.7 million acres across the nation at auction to the oil and gas industry, including 221,000 acres in New Mexico. All of this comes at a cost, both to wild creatures, the people who live near production and our public lands. We need an Interior Department that balances all interests.
As Secretary Bernhardt comes to New Mexico — he’s a guest at the annual meeting of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association — we hope he also listens to those not involved with the industry his administration so ardently supports.
No one in New Mexico fails to recognize the importance of oil and gas to our economy and to our tax revenues. We have always been a state, however, that balances the drive for profit with the need to protect and preserve. We also understand it is crucial that New Mexico and the country begin transitioning away from fossil fuels for the sake of our planet. The current boom in oil and gas has to be considered in context — as a way to finance the next phase of energy development, one focused on renewable sources of power that do not heat up our planet or pollute land and water. It is crucial that national leaders also understand the stakes.
As Interior secretary, the decisions that Bernhardt makes on behalf of our public lands could mean cleaner air and water, or skies polluted with methane and water fouled with oil and gas byproducts. Important wildlife corridors, where species still adapting to human presence and changing climate need the freedom to move, are being squeezed out. Bernhardt has said wildlife and migration corridors are a priority at Interior, and we look forward to actions that will turn those statements into reality.
In New Mexico, as in other parts of the West, the Interior Department is the key agency in protecting cultural sites. That’s why a one-year moratorium on leasing around Chaco Canyon is so important, a protection of the site that showcases our past. The same consideration should be given to Bears Ears National Monument in Utah; instead of shrinking it, the monument needs to be protected and tribes given say in its management.
His decision on Chaco shows that despite his energy connections — Bernhardt worked as a lobbyist for oil and gas companies — the secretary can listen to broader concerns. Supporting Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act to offer broader and permanent protection to this significant place would cement his contribution to our state.
In New Mexico, the people understand that the legacy of our public lands must be safeguarded — and that means, in many cases, holding back on unchecked energy development. People here supported the creation of the Río Grande National Monument in the north and the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument in the South. We understand that Chaco Canyon is a sacred site, essential to the history and culture of Native peoples, and an irreplaceable treasure for the entire world.
And, Mr. Secretary, the people of New Mexico want a Department of Interior that manages our collective heritage for the public good — with preservation, not profit, as a guiding principle. Otherwise, we risk squandering this magnificant inheritance.