Our state is home to one of the most remarkable places in the country. Chaco Culture National Historical Park and several sites surrounding it are one of only 24 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States and with an amazing history that long pre-dates the country.
Yet, despite its tremendous importance for descendant Pueblos, other nearby tribal communities and archaeologists, a battle continues to save the Greater Chaco cultural landscape from oil and gas development. But, we are closer than ever to finally protecting this important landscape.
As New Mexico members of the National Parks Conservation Association’s southwest regional advisory council, we have long fought for stronger protections for Greater Chaco. The cultural importance of this landscape expands far beyond the existing boundaries of the national park. Outside of those 33,000 acres exist well over 5,000 unprotected cultural sites. These sites are part of our country’s history, and tell a story of the extraordinary and prosperous Puebloan civilization that thrived in the area hundreds of years before Europeans set foot on this continent.
Despite the landscape’s incredible history, it has suffered severely from oil and gas drilling, which continues to threaten the small undeveloped portion of the landscape that remains. Associated infrastructure and heavy vehicles also threaten public health and safety.
In late 2021, the Biden administration proposed a 20-year ban on new oil and gas drilling on federal lands in the area to protect its cultural resources and unique history for future generations. Pueblos and tribes, our members, government officials and the general public – in New Mexico and beyond – have shown overwhelming support for these protections. Additionally, a new bill was introduced into Congress last November (which we expect to be reintroduced early in the new Congress) that will permanently protect this special, sacred landscape.
The proposed safeguards are a thoughtful approach to a sensitive issue. Recognizing that there are tribal lands within the proposed 10-mile protected zone, both the administrative moratorium and the legislation are clear that these lands would be exempted from the ban and tribal communities will be able to continue to develop or not develop their land as they wish.
Despite the alarmist complaints from the oil and gas industry that has already decimated much of this landscape, a study by the Bureau of Land Management about the proposed impacts of a 20-year moratorium found that natural gas wells in the area would see a reduction of their output of less than 1%. Oil and gas companies may see a reduction of only 2.5%.
While extractive industry has already taken a heavy toll, there is a priceless cultural landscape and history contained within the proposed withdrawal area yet to be revealed. More than 90% of the federal lands within this area have already been leased to oil and gas companies. The proposed ban of new oil and gas leasing will not undo the damage already done to the region, but the very least we can do is to protect the 10% that remains.
We urge the Biden administration to finalize the leasing ban and Congress to move quickly to enact the Chaco permanent protection legislation.
Kurt Riley is former governor of the Pueblo of Acoma, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma Historic Preservation Office Advisory Board, and former co-chair of the All Pueblo Council of Governors Natural Resources Committee. Jerry Rogers is former associate director for Cultural Resources and Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places for the National Park Service, and former board president of the New Mexico Heritage Preservation Alliance. Doug Sporn has been a member of NPCA’s Southwest Regional Council for over 10 years and member of NPCA for over 25 years. Dave Simon is director of Albuquerque Parks & Recreation Department and former director of New Mexico State Parks.