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Chaco: A cultural legacy at risk

The Pueblo Bonito ruins at Chaco Canyon are touted as “the most important site in the canyon and a must for all visitors” on the National Park Service website. There is a debate over how to handle mineral leases across the Greater Chaco landscape. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

For all the wild beauty of Chaco Canyon’s high-desert landscape, the harsh conditions make it an unlikely place for a culture to flourish. And yet, people have lived on this land for centuries, thriving generation after generation. The center of this landscape is now known as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a concentration of the most exceptional Ancestral Puebloan sites in the United States, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

These unique and sacred lands are also home to some of the largest oil and gas reserves in the U.S. Recently, the Trump administration moved to severely limit local communities’ say in whether oil and gas development should occur near national parks and other landscapes, including the elimination of collaborative planning designed to protect public lands and sacred places while allowing energy production to continue in a balanced and sustainable way.

The administration’s recent action and increasing development threats leave the future of the park – and sacred tribal lands and communities across the Greater Chaco landscape – at a crossroads.

The National Parks Conservation Association filed one of more than 100 legal protests in response to the planned sale of oil and gas leases on nearly 4,500 acres in Greater Chaco. Among the reasons for our protest, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) did not identify and analyze the sale’s impacts to sacred and traditional sites and ignored environmental justice impacts to local tribal communities.

This lease is part of a troubling and growing trend of allowing oil and gas development on lands adjacent to national parks. Since the beginning of this administration, BLM has announced lease sales close to Zion National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, Rocky Mountain National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Great Basin National Park, Mesa Verde National Park, Fort Laramie National Historic Site and others.

The National Park Service and the BLM had been working toward improved local coordination on oil and gas leasing, listening to local citizens, recreation and tourism businesses and the oil and gas industry to make sure leasing decisions do not harm the most important locations on these landscapes. Such collaborative efforts have allowed leasing to move forward near Arches and Canyonlands national parks in Utah and Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, while still providing crucial protections for the parks and visitor experiences. The administration’s latest move to scrap this process would end collaboration among key stakeholders working to preserve these special places.

As we strive to protect the unique cultural heritage of Greater Chaco, we need to look closely at the effects of development and move slowly and carefully to minimize the impacts to these ancestral lands and nearby communities. I have been visiting Chaco since the early ’80s and, like so many others, I am appalled to see this industrial development nibbling around the edges.

We cannot allow our cultural legacy to become islands in a sea of development, with the surrounding landscape and communities little more than sacrifice zones to the administration’s “energy dominance” policy. With tribes still confronting a legacy of chronic poverty and very limited economic opportunity, there are no simple black-and-white answers. As U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., recently said in a speech at the National Congress of American Indians, “the federal government is literally leasing the federal minerals out from underneath tribal lands without meaningful tribal consultation. That is unacceptable.”

If done right, however, development can coexist with protection of places like Chaco, or maybe it’s time to start a just transition to renewable energy alternatives. In any case, BLM must develop a thoughtful, collaborative, comprehensive plan to continue providing long-term opportunities in a more environmentally and economically sustainable way.

This living cultural landscape is the legacy of over a thousand years, and it is now on us to protect these sites from the past for the benefit of future generations.

Ernie Atencio is a native Norteño and anthropologist.


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