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Oil, gas drilling threatens critical cultural heritage

Chaco Canyon and the greater Chaco landscape of northwest New Mexico draw people together in a unique and enduring way.

These lands provide an opportunity to experience the Southwest as it once was – a vast open landscape rich in cultural history. Currently, this landscape beyond the national park’s boundaries is threatened and we must take action.

To the Pueblo people, Chaco Canyon is the place of their ancestors, who built the magnificent great houses, roads and other structures within and around the canyon.

The Navajo people also have deep ties to the Chacoan landscape, with families farming and ranching the land and gathering plants and minerals for their traditional cultural ceremonies.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and affiliated sites on nearby Navajo Nation and Bureau of Land Management lands, are designated as a World Heritage Site – one of only 22 such sites in the United States and the only such site jointly managed with BLM.

While the park is considered the crown jewel of the area, the surrounding public lands have upwards of 2,000 cultural sites, created by Pueblo, Navajo and other groups.

Unfortunately, these lands, cultural sites, traditions and peoples are now very much at risk. Oil and gas drilling has moved closer and closer to Chaco Canyon.

In fact, Chaco’s Great North Road and the spectacular outlying great house known as Pierre’s have already been impacted by development. This area, just 15 miles north of Chaco’s boundary, was a place where diverse groups could experience the pristine landscapes of the Chaco region – at least until well sites began to surround Pierre’s.

About 70 miles to the northeast, the Navajo communities of Lybrook and Counselor are facing incredible impacts to their air, land and water due to heavy development of oil wells on Navajo allotment lands. On the nearby federal lands, more than 85 percent of the area is leased and a whopping 72 percent is already in production.

There’s no turning back the clock on this development, but there is a solution.

The BLM can use a tool known as a “master leasing plan” for the greater Chaco landscape to ensure we strike a balance between responsible energy development and the protection of communities and cultural resources. This approach can help ensure that where development does occur, it happens responsibly, and not to the detriment of people, natural resources and cultural resources.

Most importantly though, the BLM can use this approach to provide a forum for stakeholders to have a meaningful say about the lands in their backyard.

The BLM can – and must – engage tribal governments, archaeologists, the National Park Service, conservationists and the oil and gas industry. This type of collaborative approach is crucial in protecting cultural resources, historic properties and modern-day Chaco while allowing energy development to occur with proper protections in place.

The Farmington Field Office of the BLM is currently updating its oil and gas plan for the northwest Farmington region. Given the critical importance of cultural resources and potential impacts to our communities, we believe the BLM should pursue a master leasing plan that looks across the landscape to take a smarter approach to energy development.

Recently, Sen. Tom Udall told BLM Director Neil Kornze in a Senate committee hearing that Chaco Canyon is “an incredibly rich cultural destination as well as sacred place to the tribes of the Southwest.”

That’s why it’s critical that the BLM works with stakeholders to protect the greater Chaco landscape and honor both the past and the present. We must maintain the integrity and experience of visiting the great houses and shrines and must recognize that the greater Chacoan landscape is a living landscape where people continue the traditions of their parents and grandparents, and distant ancestors.