By Nichola Groom
(Reuters) – The Navajo Nation has withdrawn support for a Biden administration plan to stop new oil and gas drilling near a sacred site in New Mexico, saying its members could lose potential income tied to those resources.
The move puts the tribe at odds with New Mexico’s Pueblo nations who support the administration’s proposed protection of the Chaco region, a split that reflects the complexities of President Joe Biden’s goals to conserve public lands.
In a letter to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland last week, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and 25th Navajo Nation Council Speaker Crystalyne Curley said a tribal committee had passed a resolution opposing the plan to halt mineral leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for a period of 20 years.
The tribe also rescinded its support for a 5-mile buffer zone that it had previously agreed to, according to the letter.
“As leaders of the Navajo Nation, we support the Navajo allottees who oppose the proposed withdrawal of these public lands,” the Navajo leaders said in the letter.
The Interior Department declined to comment.
Biden first proposed protecting the area, a center of ancestral Pueblo culture, in November of 2021.
Navajo Nation members hold some 160-acre allotments within the 339,000 acre withdrawal zone that were granted beginning in the late 19th century.
The withdrawal would not preclude those people from issuing new leases, but would bar new leases on adjacent or nearby federal lands. The Navajo argue that barring those lands from development would diminish drilling interest in the wider area.
Allotment leases can fetch royalty rates of between 2% and 20% of production and rents of about $1,120 a year, according to an analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM analysis found that the proposed withdrawal would likely impact about 86 allotments.
The Navajo Nation said the funds from leasing support the basic needs of “elderly culture bearers” who want to live on those lands forever.
In a separate letter, the All Pueblo Council of Governors urged Interior to finalize its proposed protections. A spokesperson for the Council said all tribes played a role in designing the withdrawal to protect existing drilling rights.
Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary, is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe.
The Navajo Nation did not respond to requests for comment.
New Mexico’s Congressional delegation introduced a bill last week that would go a step further than the Interior proposal by permanently protecting the region.
(This May 9 story has been corrected to reflect that allotted lands are not precluded from new leasing in Interior Department’s proposal)
(Reporting by Nichola Groom; Editing by Angus MacSwan)