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Taking a stand for the land: After Chaco-area oil, gas sale is canceled, conservation fight must go on

The past months have not been kind to Native American nations, tribes and pueblos. We are still reeling from the announcement by the administration that it would act on Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendations to slash the size of two landscapes very important to our people – Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. We had been very clear about the benefits these monuments provide in conserving our cultures’ ancient artifacts, sites and sacred landscapes. And we were not listened to.

In the midst of tearing down these parks and disregarding the years of government-to-government discussions and consultations that supported them, the administration also announced its intent to sell thousands of acres of our cultural landscape in Northwest New Mexico to the oil and gas industry. More than 90 percent of the public lands here are already leased out for oil and gas production. We have precious little land left that tells our cultures’ stories. With less than 10 percent of our lands remaining free from the fossil energy industry, we wanted politicians like Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to give our reasonable request due process and fair treatment. We asked for justice.

So we welcomed the news earlier this month that Zinke has canceled – for now – the oil and gas sale near Chaco Canyon. These lands represent some of the last open areas in the Greater Chaco Landscape. We believe cancelling this lease sale was the right thing to do in the face of our strong and united opposition. We appreciate that the secretary has acknowledged the need for “cultural consultation.”

While we are thankful to avoid this looming conflict for now, we have a longer-term vision for conserving the remaining open space of this vital landscape. It will not be enough to simply postpone the leasing until a later time. We have called for the permanent protection of the Chaco Core Protection Zone, which includes a wide buffer around Chaco National Park, the Great North Road and other outlying cultural sites. The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs must work to protect these important areas in the Resource Management Plan that is currently being amended and balance natural and cultural resource management and development in Northwest New Mexico. We also support any federal legislation that will protect this traditional and cultural landscape.

One thousand years ago, long before Europeans fathomed the existence of North America, a large and well-organized society built great roads, multi-story buildings, and astronomical observatories that – to the this day – inspire awe among all who visit our homeland. The Four Corners of today’s Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico is our home, then and now. The people of our Native American nations, tribes and pueblos each have their own culture, heritage, language, and worldview that, while different from one another, all agree on the importance of this strikingly beautiful region as a sacred cultural landscape.

That is also why we seek an immediate remedy that includes the restoration of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monument boundaries to protect the thousands of sacred sites and objects that are found there. We are relying on the U.S. judiciary system to restore justice and protect these irreplaceable landscapes.

Secretary Zinke’s decision not to move ahead with the leases this month is a step forward and a bit of good news. But we have much to do to ensure land management outcomes in the Four Corners region that honor and support our cultural heritage rather than diminish and divide our people and land.