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We can still save Chaco Canyon

As seen from the mesa above Chaco Canyon, Chetro Ketl’s three grand kivas form nearly perfect circles. (Courtesy of Glen Rosales)

As lawmakers return to Washington, they have an opportunity to make a long-lasting commitment to America’s history and culture by permanently protecting Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the surrounding landscape from oil and gas development.

Sens. (Tom) Udall and (Martin) Heinrich have led this effort, co-sponsoring the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act that calls for ending all future oil and gas leasing on 316,000 acres of federal land within a 10-mile cultural protection zone around the park. The bipartisan House version is led by Reps. (Ben Ray) Luján, (Debra) Haaland and (Xochitl) Torres Small. The bill does not apply to tribal lands, tribal allotted lands, or other private parcels in this checkerboard of jurisdictions, preserving the opportunity for some local economic development opportunities in these communities.

Recognizing the importance of this unique cultural landscape to many tribes in the region, as well as the general public, state Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard placed a leasing moratorium on an additional 72,000 acres of state lands within the protection zone. Subsequently, U.S. Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt followed suit, setting a one-year moratorium on new leasing of federal lands in the area, temporarily taking the heat off while the legislation is considered in Congress.

Despite Chaco’s small size, it is one of the most important cultural sites in our National Park System and has earned World Heritage Site status as a globally important area. A thousand years ago people traveled here from distant places to trade, exchange ideas and celebrate ceremonial activities. The structures they built were some of the largest and most complex buildings in North America until the 19th century. Today, the area is still revered as sacred ancestral homeland and continues to serve as an important cultural center for numerous tribes. However, many important spiritual and cultural sites lie outside park boundaries with little or no protection from oil and gas development.

The legislation describes the Greater Chaco Landscape as encompassing a larger area beyond the boundaries of the park – the archaeology, sacred sites and tribal communities that define the cultural landscape surrounding Chaco in fact extend throughout the Four Corners region, well beyond even the 10-mile zone. In addition to prohibiting new leases, the bill will terminate existing leases that are not currently producing, and it acknowledges the need for additional studies and protective measures to address health, safety and environmental impacts on communities and tribes.

More than 91% of the federal land surrounding the park is already leased to the oil and gas industry. All this development has taken a visible toll on the health of the land and local communities. An industrialized landscape of tens of thousands of oil and gas rigs light up the dark night skies and create air pollution breathed in by Navajo communities that have been there for centuries. Trucks and heavy equipment continually rumble by on dusty rural roads. Rampant methane waste has created a 2,500-square-mile methane cloud equal to the size of Delaware.

Enough. It’s time to save what’s left and start charting a new course that protects shared landscapes, history and people.

The proposed Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is widely supported by New Mexicans, including a historic coalition of the Pueblo and Navajo peoples. We thank our Congressional delegation for its leadership. When (members) return to Congress this month they have an opportunity to build on all this momentum to permanently protect this very special park and surrounding landscape.

Ernie Atencio and Paul Reed both live near Taos.

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