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.

With environmental awareness heightened by climate change, hopefully, the second time will be the charm for 4,200 acres of land sacred to New Mexico’s pueblos. 

The Buffalo Tract Protection Act (SB 180) seeks to withdraw 4,200 acres of Bureau of Land Management land near Placitas, New Mexico from all forms of mineral development, particularly gravel mining. The Buffalo Tract and the Crest of Montezuma, both included in the bill, are ancestral lands of the Pueblo of Santa Ana and the Pueblo of San Felipe.

SB 180, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Melanie Stansbury, is co-sponsored by Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández and supported by two congressmen from California. Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján have co-sponsored the bill in the Senate.

New Mexico’s congressional delegation pursued removing the Buffalo Tract from gravel mining in 2019. Then-Rep. Deb Haaland, who is now interior secretary, sponsored the bill. Senators Heinrich and then-Senator Tom Udall also sponsored the bill that same year.

In 2019 the National Stone, Sand and Gravel Association opposed the measure, stating in a letter that the ban on gravel mining could cause material costs for public works projects such as roads and water projects to rise 30 to 40 percent and more in the Albuquerque Metro area. Gravel resources in the Albuquerque area are depleted, necessitating sourcing gravel from other areas. According to the nonprofit group Las Placitas, Placitas is home to four of the 13 largest gravel pits in the state.

While Stansbury acknowledged the concerns around increased costs for public works projects, she said the lands that the bill sets aside are sacred lands. In addition to the pueblos’ ancestral ties, Stansbury noted the area provides an important corridor for wildlife. Land grants and other communities also have historical cultural ties to the area.

Stansbury believes gravel can be sourced from other places that are not environmentally and culturally sensitive. “How can you weigh the bottom line of profits for businesses and building materials against the cultural patrimony of communities and especially our tribes and pueblos?” she said.

“The Crest of Montezuma and the Buffalo Tract are home to important ecosystems and have been used by communities along the Rio Grande Valley for centuries,” said Heinrich. “Numerous residents have shared their concerns with me about the future of these lands and the potential damage that would result from gravel mining. Mineral development would negatively impact public health, quality of life and water supplies.

Heavy industry like gravel mining leads to increased particulate matter in the air. A proposed gravel mine near residential communities could increase respiratory inflammation, Stansbury said in a press release.

“Protection of the Buffalo Tract will allow our youth and future generations to know our ancestral lands as we have and will ensure wildlife will remain undisturbed,” Pueblo of San Felipe Governor Anthony Ortiz said in a statement. The area also includes sites protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“Currently, several mines are operating in this area, and any new mining would only exacerbate the negative impacts that mining has on this area as well as further limit the movement of wildlife along this important corridor,” said Pueblo of Santa Ana Governor Ulysses G. Leon. “Santa Ana has ceased mining activities on its lands, and we support the effort to protect the Buffalo Tract from any new mining.”

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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.