Navajo Allottees Frustrated By Interior Delay On Leasing Near Chaco Canyon
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt’s decision to delay leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park after a visit to the site with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich this week drew feelings of disappointment and frustration from Navajo who live nearby.
Bernhardt ordered a one-year delay for oil and gas leasing on federal public lands as a result of his visit to Chaco Canyon earlier in the week.
The delay will provide an opportunity for the Bureau of Land Management to update a resource management plan that encompasses the area, according to Bernhardt.
“I have directed BLM to promptly publish a draft Resource Management Plan that includes an alternative that reflects the tribal leaders’ views and the proposed legislative boundaries. We will take appropriate action to defer leasing within the 10-mile buffer during the next year, and we will respect the role of Congress under the property clause of the Constitution to determine how particular lands held by the federal government should be managed,” Bernhardt added.
But Navajo allottees who privately own mineral rights near Chaco Canyon expressed frustration and disappointment at being left out of the process, as they were in April when a Congressional delegation led by members of the House Natural Resources Committee ignored the group altogether.
Delora Hesuse, a Navajo whose ancestors were allotted private mineral rights, said that no one from Heinrich’s office or the Interior Department reached out to them ahead of this week’s visit. Hesuse and other Native Americans with allotted mineral rights living near Nageezi (pronounced “Nah-yee-zee”) said the lack of information extended to the Navajo Nation and their own council delegates.
“We feel like we still aren’t being heard,” Hesuse told Western Wire. “They just seem to pass by Nageezi and drive along by to Chaco Canyon,” she added.
For Hesuse and her fellow allottees, the one-year delay represents another barrier to further development of their mineral rights and denial of critical income, as oil and gas producers will consider the area too risky for future development if the buffer zone or further leasing delays make the area less attractive for investment.
Referring to the patchwork of crisscrossing federal and private minerals in the area, Hesuse said, “If we don’t get any of these other lands besides our allotments we can’t really go on to the next phase of development, because we do need all these other lands.” She added, “They [officials] say we’re not going to be affected, but I don’t think any of these oil companies are going to spend money to develop one allotment.”
Hesuse said that to develop allotment parcels, companies also need neighboring state and BLM lands to make the project and the economics of the development work.
“We’re just not getting anywhere, we’re not getting any support,” she added. Previous support, Hesuse said, has virtually disappeared.
Like her fellow allottees, Hesuse’s mineral rights are governed by Federal Indian Mineral Office (FIMO), established by the Department of the Interior “to provide and improve Indian Trust services to individual Indian beneficiaries in the management of their oil and gas mineral resources.” Along with BLM, the agency inspects oil and gas leases on lands allotted to Native Americans. The allotments cover tens of thousands of acres.
Danny Simpson, research coordinator with the Nageezi Chapter and an allottee, said a meeting with private mineral owners is scheduled for next week to hear their concerns about the proposed buffer zone. Simpson said the meeting with a Navajo resource development committee came at the request of the chapter on behalf of the allottees.
“This is actually the first government entity that’s coming in to hear the opposition to this buffer zone,” Simpson said.
Verna Martinez, another allottee, said she wanted leasing to continue. She agreed that previous support for drilling in the area, and agreements with the producing companies, was no longer occurring.
“I want it [leasing] to continue,” Martinez said. “We benefit from this oil and gas.” She said she did not understand the lack of support for the Navajo allottees from the Navajo Nation itself.
“Come and support us and let us voice our concerns about our allotments,” Martinez added. The loss of income affects retirement considerations, the 64-year-old said.
“I think where we really are upset is with elected officials who said they were going to support us,” Hesuse said. She said the former New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez met with the group, as did Interior Department officials. Now, nothing, Hesuse continued, including being left out of critical decisions affecting her and her fellow allottees’ future.
“They’re agreeing on something we don’t even know about,” she said. “Saying that we’re all on the same wagon with all of them but we are not,” Hesuse concluded.
Heinrich organized and welcomed the Interior Secretary’s visit—and the delay—as part of his efforts to push legislation that would create a permanent buffer zone around the ancient sites.
“I invited Secretary Bernhardt to New Mexico to see firsthand how special Chaco Canyon is and I’m pleased with the outcome of his visit. The Secretary had the opportunity to meet with local tribal leaders who are united in protecting the area surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The region holds deep meaning to New Mexico’s Pueblos, whose history and traditional knowledge live on in its thousands of ancestral sites, and to the Navajo Nation, whose lands and communities surround Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” said Heinrich.
“I appreciated the opportunity to visit with Senator [Martin] Heinrich and the tribal leaders today. I walked away with a greater sense of appreciation of the magnificent site managed by the National Park Service and a better understanding of the of tribal leaders’ views of its cultural significance,” said Bernhardt.
“Secretary Bernhardt agreed to put on hold any leasing within the 10-mile perimeter for a one-year period. This will allow time for the BLM’s Resource Management Plan to be drafted and for Congress to consider the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, a bill I introduced with Senator [Tom] Udall to withdraw federal lands around Chaco Canyon from further mineral development,” Heinrich added.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has supported expanded buffer zones around Chaco and related cultural sites.