This story is a staff report from The Paper.

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The Department of the Interior is accepting public comment on a proposed mineral withdrawal on the lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The 90-day public comment period that launched January 6 will help the Department of the Interior weigh the benefits of a federal administrative mineral withdrawal in the Greater Chaco region that was proposed by President Joe Biden and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in November 2021.

“This proposed mineral withdrawal is a huge step forward in efforts to protect Greater Chaco,” Executive Director at New Mexico Wild Mark Allison said. “With over 90 percent of these lands already leased for development, time is running out to protect this beloved landscape and the cultural artifacts that tell the stories of the Indigenous peoples of the Southwest and their remarkable innovations over the centuries. We urge all New Mexicans to make their voices heard by submitting comments to Interior stating that the Chaco landscape is both priceless and irreplaceable.”

Many Greater Chaco Coalition members though believe more work needs to be done. Coalition members are calling the limited administrative withdrawal insufficient because it does not address concerns long articulated by impacted communities or to initiate a promised new process of collaboration for Greater Chaco Landscape management. Members say the pledge doesn’t address the cumulative cultural, climate, and community impacts of fracking in the region.

“The efforts by the Department of the Interior are a step in the right direction in upholding tribal sovereignty and for protection of the landscape that is centered at the intersection of social, cultural and ecological significance. The fight for the Greater Chaco region is a fight for a healthier future for our children, which cannot be ignored, and concrete action must be taken now. The potential 10-mile mineral withdrawal around Chaco National Park boundaries and the 90-day comment period are a step forward, but we must continue to hold decision-makers accountable to the injustice that has historically taken place in this region,” said members of the Pueblo Action Alliance.

If the proposal is approved, the Interior would withdraw 351,479.97 acres of federal lands within ten miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future development for a period of up to 20 years. Such a move would drastically improve protections for the public lands in the Greater Chaco region, which hold tremendous cultural and historical value—and present-day sacred sites—for the Indigenous populations of New Mexico. The proposal covers federally managed lands and would not affect any Navajo development allotments.

“The proposed leasing ban is a good step, but more needs to be done for a region that’s suffered for decades from federal and fossil fuel industry exploitation. Environmental justice and our planet’s future demand that President Biden keeps his promise to end federal fossil fuel leasing and extraction in the Chaco region and the entire country,” said Taylor McKinnon, Senior Campaigner for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“While we are excited about a potential administrative withdrawal, the sobering reality is that such an action could be reversed by a future presidential administration that is less friendly to our public lands and Indigenous communities. That’s why we will continue to work with members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation to reintroduce and pass legislation that will make these protections permanent,” Allison added.

In addition to the public comment period, an in-person public meeting will be held on February 23 in Farmington. A virtual public meeting will be available via Zoom the following day. Public comments can be submitted by mail or online. All comments should be sent to Sarah Scott, CCNHP Area Withdrawal, Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office, 6251 College Blvd. Suite A, Farmington, NM 87402.