During my career in the National Park Service (NPS), I worked at 13 different sites across the Southwest, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument. I’ve given countless tours and worked in curation, protection and management of the connected landscape. Through that work, I witnessed firsthand the accumulated impact of rampant oil and gas development on public lands in the region.
The antiquated federal oil and gas program has prioritized mineral extraction at the expense of protecting communities and this extraordinary cultural landscape. Thankfully, President Joe Biden and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland took an important step toward providing the Greater Chaco Landscape’s sacred sites, cultural resources and tribal communities with long-lasting protection by announcing plans to withdraw federal lands around Chaco Canyon, an internationally important World Heritage Site, from future oil and gas leasing for a period of 20 years.
A place like this should undoubtedly be off-limits to development, yet it’s been sacrificed to the oil and gas industry. Over the last 20 years I’ve observed a shocking proliferation of roads and wells throughout this area. This reckless road building and drilling has caused immense harm to health, air quality and culture in the landscape surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park, as oil and gas wells, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure have destroyed significant cultural sites and transformed others into industrial areas. The Bureau of Land Management has leased over 90% of the federal lands surrounding Chaco for drilling, and oil and gas companies have drilled more than 37,000 wells in the area and built a sprawling network of roads – 15,000 miles – five times longer than the distance from Los Angeles to New York.
A 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park is absolutely necessary to protect the irreplaceable cultural resources scattered throughout the landscape. Anything less would be insufficient. This area contains 12 significant and largely unprotected Chacoan great house communities with thousands of archeological sites.
The Biden’s administration’s 20-year ban on oil and gas drilling on federal lands within 10 miles of the park would reduce these threats, help preserve the stories of the Ancestral Puebloan culture, and protect thousands of archeological sites and resources found throughout the Greater Chaco Landscape. Along with this important first step, permanent protections are needed, and the landscape-level assessment of oil and gas development also proposed by the administration is critical to prioritizing frontline communities in the area, ensuring that health and well-being of community members in northwestern New Mexico do not take a backseat to oil and gas industry profits.
A lot of history stands to be lost if we fail to protect Chaco. As the comment period for the proposed withdrawal is underway, I urge the public to add their voice in support of protecting Chaco from oil and gas drilling. Members of the public can submit comments by April 6th to BLM_NM_FM_CCNHP_Area_Withdrawal_Comments@blm.gov. The Department of the Interior has an obligation to listen to tribal and local communities who have sacred ties to the historical and cultural resources in the region and implement stronger protections for the Greater Chaco Landscape.