New Mexico lawmakers and Native communities win big on gas, oil hold

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CHACO CANYON, N.M. – There was a big win for the Pueblo people this week in the battle over New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region. For years, they have been trying to push back oil and gas companies from mining near the site they consider sacred, and Monday their wish came true thanks to an executive order signed by President Joe Biden.

Sen. Ben Ray Lujan, alongside now Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, have been introducing legislation to protect the area for at least the last three presidential administrations. When Biden signed the order, they were excited to see their years of work pay off.

Chaco Canyon has a long and rich history. It is home to both cultural and spiritual importance to the Pueblo and Navajo people. Chaco Canyon was even named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

“Anyone who has had a chance to visit Chaco, I think they instantly feel the energy that came from so much prayer in a center of faith and a center of commerce going back to 850 A.D.,” Lujan said.

Not far from the natural beauty, people can find natural resources. Back in 2019, Haaland and Lujan toured the nearby oil fields. At the time, they told our 4 Investigates team they didn’t like what they saw.

“It hits you when you are smelling it and when you can see it, I can’t describe how it makes you feel, it makes you angry, it makes you mad,” Lujan said.

But yesterday, Lujan felt very different emotions in Washington, D.C.

“President Biden announced [Monday] along with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland their intent to provide more protection for Chaco with a 10-mile buffer withdrawing federal leasing,” Lujan said.

The signed executive order prevents the federal government from granting any oil and gas leases within a 10-mile buffer zone around the park for the next 20 years. While Lujan is celebrating this win for Chaco, he said their work is not yet over.

“The executive action still does not replace the need to pass legislation in my opinion,” Lujan said.

Lujan plans to introduce a bill in Congress that would extend that 10-mile buffer indefinitely.

The Navajo Nation Council released a statement Tuesday saying they would prefer a 5-mile buffer around Chaco Canyon.