ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- A top official with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management said Wednesday the agency is open to Congress considering legislation limiting federal leases for oil and natural gas development near a national park in New Mexico held sacred by Native Americans.
Michael Nedd, the agency's deputy director of operations, testified before a congressional subcommittee that the agency had no objection to the Democrat-sponsored bill. He said Congress has the authority to dispose of or establish rules for federal property as it sees fit.
"Striking the appropriate balance for public lands use is an important mission that the department takes seriously," Nedd said, mentioning the $1.3 billion in annual revenue generated by development on federal lands in New Mexico and Interior Secretary David Bernhardt's acknowledgement that some areas would benefit from more protections.
The shift in the agency's stance follows a recent visit by Bernhardt to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
After touring the world heritage site and meeting with leaders from Navajo Nation and New Mexico's pueblos, Bernhardt said the Bureau of Land Management will defer leases within 10 miles of the park over the next year while regulators prepare a new management plan for the region's resources.
As part of Bernhardt's commitment, that plan will include alternatives that reflect provisions of the legislation as well as the views of tribal leaders who are seeking permanent protections.
Chaco park includes what's left of an ancient civilization whose monumental architecture and cultural influences have long been a mystery. While the park represents the heart of the area with its towering stone structures and ceremonial kivas, numerous archaeological sites lie outside its boundaries.
Scientists agree the location offered something of a religious or ritualistic experience for its inhabitants centuries ago. Many of Chaco's structures align with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.
It was U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich who invited Bernhardt to Chaco. The New Mexico Democrat said Wednesday he's optimistic about the path forward.
"This is about listening to tribal leaders and all of the New Mexicans who are calling on us to preserve the integrity of Chaco's irreplaceable resources and the sacred landscapes in this region for future generations," Heinrich said.