For many decades in the Southwest, the Udall name has become synonymous with conservation. My mother used to talk about knocking on doors in support of the Wilderness Act, when Stewart Udall was Interior Secretary, and my parents were actively supportive of Maurice Udall’s effort to get the Sycamore Wilderness designated in Arizona. 

With this in mind, it was refreshing to hear Sen. Tom UdallThomas (Tom) Stewart UdallOvernight Energy: Trump adviser Kudlow seeks end to electric car, renewable energy credits | Shell to pay execs based on carbon reduction | Justices reject greens' border wall lawsuit Hillicon Valley: Justices weigh iPhone app case | Farewell to Facebook's war room? | UK Parliament turns up heat on Zuckerberg | Russian hackers return after midterms | Papadopoulos begins 2-week prison sentence | NASA lands probe on Mars Dems unveil bill to crack down on bots during holiday shopping MORE (D-N.M.) voice his concern in a Senate hearing last week over oil and gas development in the northwest New Mexico, and its potential impact on Chaco Canyon, which in the Senator’s words is “an incredibly rich cultural destination as well as sacred place to the tribes of the Southwest.”


Chaco Canyon is a sacred place to the Pueblos, and there are thousands of cultural sites with ties to both the Pueblos and the Navajo. Chaco Canyon and Chaco Culture National Historical Park is also a symbol of New Mexico’s outdoor heritage, and this remote national park receives nearly 40,000 visits generating more than $2.1 million in economic activity.

Udall was right to flag the potential conflicts and how “Chaco Canyon is situated right in one of the most productive oil and gas production areas in the country. It appears that many new leases are getting closer to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which really concerns me.”

Udall then followed up on a letter to Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellOvernight Energy: Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone | UN report offers dire climate warning | Trump expected to lift ethanol restrictions Zinke extends mining ban near Yellowstone Blind focus on ‘energy dominance’ may cripple Endangered Species Act MORE regarding the protection of Chaco and its “enormous significance” to tribes and America’s future generations. The letter was co-signed by Sen. Martin HeinrichMartin Trevor HeinrichManchin’s likely senior role on key energy panel rankles progressives Senate panel advances Trump’s energy nominee despite Dem objections Dems wonder if Sherrod Brown could be their magic man MORE (D-N.M.) and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.).

Udall secured a pledge from U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Neil Kornze ensuring that the oil and gas leasing near Chaco Canyon are handled with the “utmost consideration for the archeological value that Chaco holds.” 

This is good news for New Mexico and the cultural legacy of the West. Currently, the BLM is revising its oil and gas management plan for about 2.3 million acres of land in northwest New Mexico.

Other lands deserving attention

The BLM should be applauded for the special consideration it’s given to date to the greater Chacoan landscape. Such attention would be warranted for other public lands such as Rio Arriba County, New Mexico.

Rich in cultural history, the area along the Rio Chama has been valued by people since the Ancestral Pueblo People first created irrigation networks, which were later extended by Spanish colonists, into the acequia system that is still in use today by Latino and native community farmers. Today, the region is valued as a scenic and recreational resource, with hunting, fishing, and even hot springs.  While oil and gas development has largely been contained to the western part of the county, the industry is now encroaching upon the area, including lands near the town of Cebolla. Knowing that development is on the horizon, now is the time for New Mexico’s leaders to step forward and compel the BLM to consider our traditional Native American and Hispano communities in the area.

Tools for innovation and collaboration

Thankfully, the BLM has an innovative tool that can help look across the landscape to avoid conflicts before they start and provide a platform for stakeholder engagement called a Master Leasing Plan.

By requiring a Master Leasing Plan as part of the development decision-making process in places such as the Greater Chacoan landscape or Rio Arriba, development can be directed to the areas of least conflict, better protecting air, water, wildlife habitat, tourism and recreation, all of which are important to the economy and communities of New Mexico.  Local governments, property owners and community members are engaged in a collaborative process to ensure that their values –even cultural values – can be protected. 

By now, most Americans have heard about the impacts that the oil and gas industry can have on landscapes and communities. Fracking, methane flaring and venting and fragmentation of landscapes by thousands of well sites all take a toll on the land and the people who live there. While it is still in the economic interest and while there is still a need for these energy sources, we should be approaching development conscientiously and with the utmost caution.  It only makes sense.

Now is the time for BLM Director Kornze to listen to leaders like Senator Udall to make that right decision, and continue to call for a more balanced approached to energy development throughout New Mexico.

Torrez is communications strategist for HECHO, a community of Latino sportsmen and women committed to bringing a Latino voice to conservation.