Oil and gas withdrawal around US park stirs debate over economic costs for Native American tribe

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FILE - Tourist Chris Farthing, from Suffolks County, England, takes a picture of Anasazi ruins in Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Aug. 10, 2005, in New Mexico. Some Republican members of Congress voiced opposition Thursday, July 13, 2023, to the Biden administrations recent move to withdraw hundreds of square miles of federal land in New Mexico from oil and gas development, including land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, offering their support instead to legislation that would unravel the ban. (AP Photo/Jeff Geissler, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Some Republican members of Congress on Thursday denounced the Biden administration’s recent move to withdraw hundreds of square miles of federal land in New Mexico from oil and gas development, offering their support instead to legislation that would unravel the ban.

U.S. Rep. Eli Crane was among those to speak out during a congressional subcommittee hearing on the legislation that he and fellow Arizona Republican Rep. Paul Gosar recently introduced to nullify what they consider overreach by the federal government.

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Crane's district includes part of the vast Navajo Nation, which spans portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The eastern side of the reservation is part of a jurisdictional checkerboard that includes federal, state and private lands along with Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.

He acknowledged that the park holds cultural significance for tribes throughout the Southwestern U.S. but that development surrounding Chaco should be determined by the Navajo Nation and the thousands of individual Navajo landowners who are affected.

“The Biden administration did not properly seek out tribal input and have effectively implemented a destructive chokehold on tribal revenue and economic prosperity,” Crane said.

Although the Navajo Nation has been among the tribes to seek protections for sacred areas within the Chaco region over the decades, Navajo leaders had proposed a smaller buffer around the park to limit the economic consequences of a federal ban land locking individual Navajo parcels.

Navajo President Buu Nygren contends that the administration gave no weight to the tribe’s concerns before imposing the ban.

“The withdrawal was done without meaningful consultation and fails to honor the Navajo Nation's sovereignty,” he testified. “Respect for tribal sovereignty must be consistent even when it is not convenient.”

Gosar suggested that the administration's decision was predetermined and that the U.S. Interior Department should have waited to make a determination until New Mexico pueblos completed their ethnographic study, which is due later this year.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American Cabinet member in the U.S., has said previously that her agency consulted with Navajo leadership, and numerous public meetings and comment periods were held over the last two years as part of the process. Her home pueblo of Laguna was among those tribes seeking permanent protections for lands beyond the park.

U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury, both New Mexico Democrats, submitted dozens of letters from other Navajos and members of other tribes who support prohibiting drilling in northwestern New Mexico.

Leger Fernández said difficult choices come from balancing competing interests such as cultural preservation and the poverty faced by Navajos.

“What I believe is important is honoring that which is invaluable, that which can never be replaced, that which is spiritual and sacred to those who tell us where the most important places are,” she said.

Even though no new leasing has occurred within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of Chaco park over the last decade, Nygren said the Biden administration hasn't offered a solution or an alternative for replacing the revenue and jobs that might not be realized with the withdrawal in place.

He said Navajo leadership struggles to figure out how to help people make ends meet, as many tell him about not having enough money for groceries or to wash their clothes at the laundry.

“Before we make harsh decisions, we've got to make sure there's a plan in place,” Nygren said, mentioning farming, solar development and other alternatives that have been suggested for transitioning from fossil fuels. “My hope was that we were actually going to put something on paper so that we can use that as a guiding principle before this order was issued. We've got to come back to the table.”

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said the economic harm and injustice associated with the fight over Chaco can't be ignored. The New York Democrat said Native American communities have been abused and disrespected over generations and that if Navajo families are being affected, they deserve economic restitution.

“In stripping everything away, we now are in an economic hostage situation where people feel like the only opportunity and that the only source is to acquiesce to oil and gas," she said. "And the answer to that is, in my view, not to revert back to that but to invest and reinvest in these communities.”