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Ancestral Puebloan sites scattered across the vast Chaco Canyon landscape in northwest New Mexico remain central to southwestern Indigenous cultures.
Now, the Biden administration will pause federal oil and natural gas leasing in a 10-mile zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park for two years as the Interior Department considers a 20-year leasing ban.
President Joe Biden announced the initiative at the White House Tribal Nations Summit on Monday, along with an effort to incorporate tribal ecological knowledge into the federal government’s scientific approach.
“These efforts … are a matter of dignity,” Biden said. “That’s the foundation of our nation-to-nation partnership.”
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, said she appreciates the coalition of tribes and elected officials that has “persisted in their work to conserve this special area.”
“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked and thrived in that high desert community,” Haaland said in a statement. “Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations.”
The Chaco region is a checkerboard of state, private and federal land.
Interior said the proposal would not affect existing leases, individual tribal allotments, or minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities.
Jim Winchester, executive director of the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, acknowledged Chaco Canyon as a “sacred treasure,” but said the proposal would reduce oil and gas revenue for New Mexico.
“Safe and responsible oil and gas development around Chaco does not pose a threat to the already protected sites of the sacred Chaco National Historical Park,” Winchester said. “Operators and mineral rights holders, including several Navajo allottees, have repeatedly made efforts to reach a reasonable, science-based understanding about how to protect these sacred sites. A 10-mile buffer is an overreach of federal authority, is arbitrary, and is not based in any science other than in political science.”
The National Park Service estimates that the park contains 4,000 archaeological sites and 1.5 million artifacts, which are protected within the park’s boundaries.
The proposal could help protect sites within 10 miles of the boundaries from a “tsunami” of new oil and gas activity, said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso, who represents the far eastern portions of the reservation.
“It is the hope of the people that these actions will chart the new way forward for Diné peoples’ trust and trustee relationships with the federal government, further action on the part of state governments, and (will) finally address the cumulative and consequential impacts of mineral resource extraction,” Tso said.
Much of the debate about regional energy development centers around the size of the proposed “buffer zone” surrounding the park, where leasing would be prohibited.
In 2019, the New Mexico State Land Office placed a moratorium on new oil and gas activity in a 12-mile buffer of state trust lands around Chaco.
The agency is also working to pass a rule that would require state trust land lessees to submit an archaeological survey before building pipelines or roads, or drilling for oil and natural gas.
Rachael Lorenzo, the State Land Office’s assistant commissioner of cultural resources, and a member of Laguna Pueblo and the Mescalero Apache Tribe, said the state is “committed to ensuring the end of the destruction of cultural sites.”
“While today’s (Interior Department) actions are a critical and necessary step toward protection, we recognize the Chaco landscape expands far greater than the 10- or 12-mile buffers established at the state and federal level,” Lorenzo said.
Interior’s 10-mile buffer proposal would include 325,000 acres of federal minerals under about 950,000 surface acres of land.
Some Navajo leaders and residents have expressed concern about indirect economic impacts of a leasing ban.
The 10-mile buffer contains 53 leased allotments that generate a total of $6.2 million a year in royalties for nearly 5,500 allottees, according to data from Interior’s Federal Indian Minerals Office.
In early 2020, the Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution withholding support from a Congressional bill that would establish a 10-mile buffer, but supporting a 5-mile buffer.
“Restrictions on extraction operations within the 10-mile buffer will have a severe negative economic impact on Navajos owning allotted lands within the buffer zone whose livelihood is derived from royalty payments for oil and gas development on their individually-owned lands,” the resolution reads.
At least six Navajo chapters and regional councils passed similar resolutions.
New Mexico’s Congressional delegation has long supported bills that would permanently withdraw lands in the greater Chaco area from federal oil and gas leasing.
“Today marks the beginning of the end of short-term policies that shift every year to the long-term certainty that this unique place will be protected,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M.
Delora Hesuse, a Navajo allottee with land in and near the buffer zone, said questions remain about how a law or an administrative action restricting leasing would affect Navajo residents.
“(Leaders are) not hearing us, so everything they got on the table, we were never consulted,” Hesuse said. “But once they got the bill going, we were the last ones to know.”
Archaeologists have identified at least 12 significant ancient Chacoan-Pueblo communities that they say justify the larger protection area.
Theresa Pierno, president and chief executive of the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association, said the important landscape “extends far beyond the existing national park site’s boundaries.”
“Having visited Chaco just a few short weeks ago, I was reminded just how special this land is,” Pierno said. “You feel the vastness of the landscape and sacredness of the site. And that is something worth protecting now, and for generations to come.”
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management will conduct an environmental analysis, and seek public comment and tribal consultation on the proposal.
Interior also plans to do a broader assessment of the greater Chaco area to “ensure that public land management better reflects the sacred sites, stories and cultural resources in the region,” according to the agency.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.