Last Chance to Protect Greater Chaco from Oil and Gas Drilling

Chaco Culture National Historic Park / Wikipedia

By Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA

September may mark the end of the latest efforts to protect the Chaco Culture National Historical Park against encroaching oil and gas production. A draft resource management plan for the area, which was released by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) earlier this year, fails to guarantee a 10-mile protective zone in lands bordering the park. The plan is open for public comment until September 25.

During a recent webinar organized by US/ICOMOS, Ernie Atencio, the southwest regional director of the National Parks Conversation Association, stated that “this really could be our last chance to save one of the most important cultural landscapes in the US.”

Allowing development as close as possible to the park depreciates the site’s beauty and integrity as world heritage. More gravely, it also introduces health and safety risks to vulnerable Pueblo and Navajo communities while further cleaving them from their sacred homelands. These lands include the Greater Chaco region in the northwestern corner of present-day New Mexico and the historic national park, which is also recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage site for its outstanding Puebloan cultural complex.

Opening oil and gas leasing next to the national park would mar the landscape with roads, well pads, pumpjacks, and processing facilities. Oil extraction would cause air and noise pollution and prompt methane to leak from the ground. Bright lights and nighttime flares would taint its International Dark Sky Place designation. Already, 92 percent of the BLM surface lands in the district (among the state’s “most scenic,” according to the BLM) are leased and subjected to these damages.

Existing oil and gas operations scar the Greater Chaco landscape / Archaeology Southwest

The Chaco cultural sites are significant to the Navajo Nation and Puebloan peoples. “I myself have gone on pilgrimages during my time in office and throughout my lifetime to these sacred sites,” says Kurt Riley, former governor of the Pueblo of Acoma. But sometimes, in order to visit these places, Riley and other tribal members must receive permission from the BLM or the US Forest Service.

The existing protection afforded by both UNESCO and the National Park Service is critical to the area’s preservation, but it far from encompasses all sacred sites. The ancient Puebloan peoples occupied territories stretching across the American Southwest, and evidence of their presence can be seen today at Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde National Park, and Bear’s Ears National Monument. Sacred sites dot the landscapes in between; over 300 occupy the Chaco landscape alone.

Riley reiterates the words of an Acoma lawyer: “All archaeological sites are sacred, but not all sacred sites are archaeological.” Any additional protections, like the 10-mile buffer around the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, contribute to preserving a network of sites largely overrun by centuries of settler colonialism.

Significant sites of the Chaco World / Archaeology Southwest

Riley and Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, argue that the Trump administration has exercised an energy dominance policy at the expense of cultural, environmental, and human health concerns. In the Chaco area, projects such as resource management plans and environmental impact statements have been railroaded forward in Washington, DC, without appropriate stakeholder consultation. Frequently, local directives from, for instance, state BLM actors, are overridden. Processes that previously involved tribal members have been fast-tracked and executed out of usual sequence, catching the tribal authorities off guard. The tribes do not have the staff or legal or financial resources to respond to the onslaught of quarterly land sales.

Oil and gas drilling surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historic Park / Archaeology Southwest

The National Parks Conservation Association and its partners — including Pueblo and Navajo groups as well as numerous conservation and preservation organizations — had been waiting years for the BLM’s draft plan for the Chaco region. At the end of February, BLM finally released it.

According to the groups opposed to the plan, the draft fails to evaluate health and safety effects of the proposed drilling. It does not include assessments from federally funded cultural resource studies. It violates numerous federal environmental and preservation laws. And just when BLM disseminated it, Covid-19 was beginning to creep across the US.

The virus especially devastated Navajo Nation and Pueblo communities near Chaco, and their focus turned inward to protecting their health. Concurrently, BLM arranged a host of virtual meetings as public engagement. For tribal leaders dealing with unreliable Internet access and cell service and a public health crisis, these already culturally insensitive meetings were unrealistic. According to Atencio, the BLM efforts amounted to “a farce of public participation.”

After months of silence and just before the comment period ended, Secretary of Interior David Bernhardt extended the comment deadline until September 25. Stakeholder requests to pause the process until the end of the pandemic were ignored.

Local tribes and others are asking for a version of the plan that retains the 10-mile protection area. “But we really feel that the plan is so deficient in its analysis of the impacts that BLM needs to revise the entire thing,” said Atencio.

President Trump signed a Presidential Memorandum in early September discontinuing new offshore oil and gas development around Florida, citing that the state’s residents “just don’t want it.” Critics argue this is an another example of discriminatory prioritization by the Trump administration that implicitly ranks the wants of different groups of people.

Through public outcry, perhaps it too can be made clear that the people of the greater Chaco region do not want oil and gas in their landscape either.

Submit your comments to the BLM directly or via Protect Chaco or the National Parks Conservation Association by September 25.

This guest post is by Grace Mitchell Tada, Associate ASLA, with Hood Design Studio and co-editor of the forthcoming book Black Landscapes Matter.

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