U.S. lawmakers introduce bill to protect Native American site from drilling

(Reuters) - New Mexico lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bill to protect federal lands around the Chaco Canyon from drilling and mining, attempting to permanently shield the Native American cultural site from recurring attempts at oil and gas leasing.

U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Representatives Ben Ray Luján and Deb Haaland introduced the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would bar any future leasing or development of minerals owned by the U.S. government located within a 10-mile protected radius of the area.

The federal Bureau of Land Management had deferred a planned lease sale of around 1,500 acres within 10 miles of the park in February after strong public opposition. It was the third attempt by the administration to offer those lands for leasing.

“Even as archaeologists are making exciting new discoveries about this region – and even as Tribes and the American public speak out in overwhelming support of protecting this precious landscape – Chaco is being threatened by expanding energy development, including recently proposed leasing inside this long-standing buffer zone,” Udall said in a statement.

Heinrich questioned Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, whose confirmation vote is expected this week, about the future of Chaco Canyon in his confirmation hearing late last month. Bernhardt did not say if he supported a withdrawal but said he “would like to get out there and see the site for myself.”

Heinrich, a member of the Senate energy committee, voted to support Bernhardt’s confirmation because he promised to visit the site.

The Navajo Nation, as well as the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) backed the legislation, which they said would protect sacred sites from development and environmental destruction.

“This land is a part of our histories as tribal nations, and holds life-affirming resources that many of our Pueblos still remember and use,” said All Pueblo Council of Governors Chairman E. Paul Torres. “Once these areas are developed, they are gone forever.”

Reporting by Valerie Volcovici in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish