U.S. moves to protect ancestral tribal area near Albuquerque, thwarting gravel mine

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Sep. 18—The U.S. Interior Department announced a plan Monday to protect more than 4,000 acres in an Indigenous area of southern Sandoval County known as Buffalo Tract, partly by barring new oil drilling and mining for 50 years.

The agency is pursuing the restrictions in response to a proposed gravel mine that has stirred fierce opposition from area residents and members of the San Felipe and Santa Ana pueblos, who say the operations would degrade the environment and ancestral tribal lands, and create a public health hazard.

The proposed mineral withdrawal would safeguard sacred tribal lands in Sandoval County, boost local recreational opportunities and support a vital wildlife corridor, agency officials said in a statement.

Aside from encompassing the two pueblos' lands, this area north of Albuquerque is popular for hiking, camping, sightseeing and hunting.

"Today we're responding to call from tribes, elected leaders, and community members who want to see these public lands protected," Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement.

A 90-day public comment period began Monday and will run through Dec. 13.

Haaland said the agency wants to hear more from residents about how activities such as gravel mining affect cultural and natural resources.

The Bureau of Land Management, which will oversee the extraction ban, opened up the Buffalo Tract and Crest of Montezuma to gravel mining in 2012.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, a New Mexico Democrat, has pushed legislation since 2016 to prevent gravel mining in the area, but his efforts have stalled.

"The Buffalo Tract is clearly the wrong place for a gravel mine," Heinrich said in a statement. "The environmental impacts on a landscape that many New Mexicans treasure would be irreparable."

The tract serves as a critical wildlife corridor between the Sandia Mountains to the south and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the north, Heinrich said.

Heinrich said he's glad the Biden administration is heeding the calls of residents who have unified to defend the Buffalo Tract for more than a decade. The public land blends with various communities, including the two pueblos, the people of Placitas and the Merced De Comunidad De San Antonio De Las Huertas land grant, he added.

He vowed to continue pursuing legislation — in particular the Buffalo Tract Protection Act — to make the safeguards permanent.

In a statement, U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury, D-N.M., said she has teamed up with Heinrich on the bill and will continue leading the effort in the House to embed into law Haaland's and President Joe Biden's policy decision.

"I am grateful that the voices of our Pueblo communities, Placitas residents, and local stakeholders have been centered in this decision," Stansbury said.