Why We Mu Permanently Safeguard Chaco Canyon

In New Mexico, there are some places where oil and gas development makes sense. But there are others, like in the Greater Chaco area, where the risks of additional development are far too great. That is why I was so excited to see that the U.S. House of Representatives recently passed the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act with bipartisan support (“House vote on Chaco a huge win for sacred sites,” My View, Nov. 1).

The Senate now must do its part and take action as soon as possible, because the clock is winding down on the one-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park announced by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt in May.

It is our responsibility — as ranchers and stewards of our public lands — to continue to work to preserve places like the Greater Chaco Landscape for future generations. Passage of this bill is a great first step toward doing just that.

As the owner of a ranch in northwest New Mexico, I’ve had my fair share of run-ins with the oil and gas industry. My family has been running cattle since the 1870s, and while we’ve never minded producers as long as they drill responsibly, the concentration of oil and gas wells has grown so great that the federal public lands surrounding our property can no longer support an operating ranch.

I am not opposed to oil and gas development.

Ranchers today probably couldn’t do their job with electric vehicles. But for too long the rules and regulations governing the oil and gas industry have been ignored by the Bureau of Land Management to the determinant of our land, air, water and other resources. This oil and gas industry-first approach to managing public lands in northwestern New Mexico has allowed 90 percent of all available federal land to be leased for drilling. We only have a few places in San Juan County that have not been irreversibly affected by oil and gas development.

The threats posed to our public lands from oil and gas development are only increasing, putting unique areas like the Greater Chaco Landscape, which is home to important cultural resources and Native populations in the region, at risk. This landscape, which includes Chaco Culture National Historical Park, has largely escaped the intensive development that surrounds my ranch and that has transformed so much of northwestern New Mexico’s magnificent public lands into an industrial wasteland.

That’s why I was disappointed — and surprised — to see the New Mexico Cattle Growers’ Association and the New Mexico Wool Growers oppose the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act. Thankfully, their opposition did not hamper the bipartisan support for these safeguards that would go a long way toward protecting Chaco Canyon from future drilling and do not in any way, shape or form apply to or affect grazing. It is most curious, then, that the grazing associations opposed this bill, and it certainly raises questions about whose interests they were actually representing — those of hardworking ranchers or those of the oil and gas executives who look at the Greater Chaco Landscape and see just another place to drill.

The Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is a necessary first step in preserving the archaeological record of the greater Chaco landscape for future generations. If we want to protect our irreplaceable landscapes in New Mexico, we need the Senate to follow suit and take action to permanently safeguard this irreplaceable landscape for generations to come.

Tweeti Blancett is a rancher in the San Juan Basin who has been profiled by People magazine.

This column originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.