U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt met with leaders of the Navajo Nation and Pueblo tribes at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park on Tuesday, saying the remote, ancient site that's been central to a yearslong dispute over oil and gas development had "blown him away."
The meeting at the site near the northwestern corner of New Mexico came at the urging of U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich. He has sponsored legislation with other members of New Mexico's all-Democratic congressional delegation to establish a formal buffer zone around the park held sacred by tribes.
Oil industry representatives say robust protections already are in place within the park and beyond, while Berhardt underscored during his tour that the Interior's Bureau of Land Management has a "complex mission" of managing a range of land uses.
Berhardt's meeting with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo and others marked his first visit to the park. The Farmington Daily Times reported that he said he expected it would have some influence on the decision-making process as the BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs work on revamping the resource management plan for the San Juan basin, which includes Chaco Canyon. A draft is expected in a few months.
"This was a major, major effort by humanity and we need to be thoughtful about that," Bernhardt said of the cultural site.
A thousand years ago, Chaco had been an economic and ceremonial hub for the ancestors of Pueblo people, whose present-day villages are situated throughout much of New Mexico.
A world-heritage site, the park's stone walls, staircases and other architectural remnants stand against a backdrop of cliffs and rocky outcroppings. Smaller archaeological sites and individual Navajo Nation family allotments can be found beyond the park's boundaries.
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.
The bill that supporters say will protect the Chaco area's archaeological and sensitive landscapes would halt new oil and natural gas lease sales on federal holdings within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) buffer zone around the park.
The Bureau of Land Management in recent years has deferred leasing parcels within that zone, but those who support the protections say legislation is needed to formalize that practice and put it into law.
In January, the Interior's Bureau of Land Management had quietly confirmed on its website that it would push forward with the sale of nine parcels within the informal buffer zone before eventually reversing the decision.