Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.

Placitas has been hanging at a crossroads for over two decades. In the second half of the 1990s the local community began to organize in opposition to the expansion of sand and gravel mining on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, including the Buffalo Parcel, which was then, and still is, open to extraction under the existing NM Resource Management Plan.

The Placitas sand-and-gravel operation was originally permitted in 1972, long before the area’s current subdivisions existed. Local residents have continued to fight gravel pit mining expansion on the BLM Buffalo Parcel amid fears of health concerns and that the mining will further damage the environment, drive out residents, halt in‐migration into the Placitas area, thereby diminishing the economic impacts of the community. The Santa Ana and San Felipe Pueblos both claim the Buffalo Parcel as being sacred to them and believe that it should remain un‐developed with absolutely no gravel mining.

On November 18, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee advanced the Buffalo Tract Protection Act, championed by U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich and Senator Ben Ray Luján, out of committee. The Act would withdraw four parcels of BLM lands in Sandoval County, including the Buffalo Tract and the Crest of Montezuma, from any mineral development, including gravel mining. Senator Heinrich noted the local support behind the legislation is united in their opposition to new gravel mining on these particular tracts.

Open pit mining of gravel produces a class of particulates referred to as PM 2.5. and PM10. Both particulates are associated with desert winds and disturbed soil and can cause health problems, specifically respiratory health (lungs and airway) and secondary issues such as heart problems. “PM10 (big) particles can stay in the air for minutes or hours and can travel as little as a hundred yards or as much as 30 miles. PM2.5 (small) particles can stay in the air for days or weeks and can travel even farther; many hundreds of miles,” according to an EPA source

Heinrich touted the conservation benefits of removing the BLM land from mineral development as they serve as critical wildlife connections between the Sandia Mountains to the south and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north.”  He informed his colleagues that a vote to advance the legislation out of committee represents “a vote for the Pueblo of Santa Ana, the Pueblo of San Felipe, the people of Placitas, Merced De Comunidad De San Antonio De Las Huertas land grant, and everyone in this community who has worked so hard to craft this legislation for more than a decade.”

In October, Senator Heinrich secured support for the legislation from the BLM. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Lands and Minerals Management at the U.S. Department of the Interior Dr. Steve Feldgus testified that Senator Heinrich’s bill aligns with the goals of the Biden administration. The bill now heads to the Senate Floor for full consideration.

BLM’s own data shows that there is no shortage of gravel resources in close‐by areas where there would be far less population and negative economic impact. The bill’s outcome will become a legacy‐forming event for current government representatives.

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Gwynne Ann Unruh is an award-winning reporter formerly of the Alamosa Valley Courier, an independent paper in southern Colorado. She covers the environment for The Paper.