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Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico is a significant landscape for many ancestral and modern Native communities.
The area is also a focal point in the debate over how the federal government should manage oil and gas drilling on public lands.
Pueblo leaders and archaeologists are pushing for federal agencies to protect cultural sites and consult tribes as the U.S. Interior Department reviews its mineral leasing program.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said during a call with reporters on Tuesday that New Mexico’s tribes should be involved from the earliest stages of determining where to drill on federal land.
The Bureau of Land Management oversees that drilling permit process.
“We need to provide the ethnographic data to the agency or agencies, so that they understand the landscape from that cultural perspective,” Vallo said.
The Acoma governor added that BLM’s final leasing decisions should reflect tribal input.
“We just have not seen that happen,” he said. “And when it does happen, it isn’t consistent.”
Congress has appropriated about $1.6 million to the Navajo Nation and a coalition of pueblos for a cultural study of the greater Chaco landscape.
That report could be completed by this fall.
The Biden administration paused new federal oil and gas lease sales earlier this year pending a review to ensure the program “serves the public interest.”
In a March forum, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland panned what she called the previous administration’s “act now, think later approach” to drilling.
“In order to tackle the climate crisis and strengthen our nation’s economy, we must manage our lands and waters and resources, not just across fiscal years, but across generations,” Haaland said.
Last week, Interior appealed a Louisiana district court decision that had forced the agency to resume leasing.
The current federal leasing system stresses “profit over preservation,” said Paul Reed, an Archaeology Southwest archaeologist who authored a new report about energy impacts on Indigenous landscapes.
Reed recommends BLM take a “more proactive approach” to removing such sensitive cultural areas as Chaco Canyon from drilling plans.
“The oil and gas industry has been allowed to call the shots in leasing federal lands across the West,” Reed said.
The report urges the BLM to “overhaul” leasing by considering regional impacts, instead of focusing solely on how drilling affects individual cultural sites.
“The accumulated impact of 100 years of rampant oil and gas development on public lands in the American West is substantial,” Reed said.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.