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.

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It takes a long time to get bicameral legislation that would codify public lands protections through all the twists and turns of Congress to become law. Fortunately for the Land of Enchantment and the people who call it home, they have strong advocates in Washington, DC that have joined together to become a squeaky wheel you can’t ignore.

In a recent letter to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, a group of lawmakers requested that, as the Buffalo Tract Protection Act moves through its process in Congress, an administrative withdrawal of Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land near Las Placitas would protect the area from mineral development until a permanent withdrawal can be enacted.  

“We support permanent withdrawal and will continue to pursue our legislation, S. 180 and H.R. 5805, to permanently withdraw these lands while maintaining the authority of BLM to sell, lease, or exchange the surface rights. As our legislation continues to move through the process, an administrative withdrawal would protect the area from mineral development until a permanent withdrawal can be enacted,” they explained in their letter to Haaland.

Residents and Indigenous communities strongly oppose mining development on the public land adjacent to Las Placitas, including the Pueblo of San Felipe and the Pueblo of Santa Ana. They ­­are concerned mineral development surrounding their communities would negatively impact their water supplies, public health and quality of life. The acreage has both cultural and ecological significance and includes a large tract shaped like a buffalo that is sacred to Native Americans.

As the former Representative for this area, Haaland would be aware of how important the conservation of these lands is to the communities that surround it. Haaland sponsored the Buffalo Tract Protection Act in 2019. That same year, New Mexico’s senators, Heinrich and then U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, also sponsored the bill.

The sponsoring lawmakers, comprised of Senators Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and Representatives Melanie Stansbury and Teresa Leger Fernández and Jerry McNerney (CA.-09), believe their withdrawal request is in alignment with the Administration’s goals of conserving important lands and consulting with communities.

“We look forward to working with you to protect the long-term health, well-being, and habitat of these communities,” the group of lawmakers told Haaland.

The group’s request follows the introduction of the Buffalo Tract Protection Act by Rep. Stansbury and Sen. Heinrich. Their legislation would protect the local communities and wildlife on and around the Buffalo Tract and the Crest of Montezuma by withdrawing four parcels of BLM land from all forms of mineral development, while maintaining the authority of BLM to sell, lease, or exchange the surface rights.

After receiving testimony from BLM supporting the legislation, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee recently advanced Senator Heinrich’s Senate companion legislation out of committee.  

“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,” Heinrich said in support of the Act. He has pledged to see the bill “across the finish line.”

If the bill becomes law, it would cover the Crest of Montezuma, the 715-acre mountainous ridge defining the horizon of eastern Las Placitas, and two smaller parcels, 37 acres bordering San Felipe Pueblo and 195 acres northwest of Las Placitas village between the Overlook and Cedar Creek areas.

The land included in the Buffalo Tract Protection Act are ancestral lands of the Pueblo of Santa Ana and the Pueblo of San Felipe and are popular recreation areas. They are located close to residential areas and have important wildlife migration corridors for deer, elk, wild turkey and pronghorn antelope, and could have cumulative environmental health and other impacts on the nearby residential community’s air and water. Recreational activities on these lands include hiking, off-highway vehicle use and recreational shooting.

“I am proud to re-introduce the Buffalo Tract Protection Act in the House. This bill would protect the ancestral lands of San Felipe Pueblo and Santa Ana Pueblo, a key wildlife corridor, and communities in Placitas and Rio Rancho by withdrawing 4,000 acres of BLM land from mineral development,” Stansbury said.

Pueblo leadership in the Pueblos of Santa Ana and San Felipe have expressed concerns in statements about mining development.

Pueblo of San Felipe Governor Anthony Ortiz said that the area is an important part of his people’s ancestral lands and includes sites protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

“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,” Ortiz said.

Pueblo of Santa Ana Governor Ulysses G. Leon said that the Buffalo Tract lands form a link between his Pueblo’s modern villages along the Rio Grande and the historic village of Paak’u.

“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,” Leon said. Santa Ana has ceased mining activities on its lands and they “support the effort to protect the Buffalo Tract from any new mining.”

The BLM’s Rio Puerco field office released a draft Resource Management Plan in 2012 (RMP) that would allow additional mineral development, including gravel mining, on tracts of public land in several counties across New Mexico. Mining on the Buffalo Tract has been opposed since the draft was released.

The BLM received more than 17,000 public comments, thousands more than the amount usually received for similar projects, on its draft Rio Puerco RMP which included the Buffalo Tract Commenters who were opposed to the environmental, public health and other damage that additional mining would bring to the area. A Las Placitas area map of the tract can be viewed here.

The Rio Puerco RMP has not yet been finalized. Passage of the Buffalo Tract Act would be a step towards updating the RMP covering BLM’s sprawling Rio Puerco Field Office.