Time Running out to Protect Chaco

We are six months into a one-year ban on oil and gas operations near the national park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Photo Credit: U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources

By Paul Reed, Archaeology Southwest

The clock is ticking.

It has been almost exactly six months since Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt agreed to halt  oil and gas lease sales within a ten-mile buffer zone surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park for one year. That means we are halfway to the end of Interior’s temporary ban on new developments near the park, and the fate of the Greater Chaco Landscape remains in limbo.

The good news is that New Mexico’s Congressional delegation is leading the way to ensure that this area, which holds deep meaning to many tribes throughout the Four Corners area, including New Mexico’s Pueblos and to the Navajo Nation –  is permanently protected as it deserves to be.  

Introduced by Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), and cosponsored by Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM), Xochitl Torres Small (D-NM), Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), and Tom Cole (R-OK), the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019 (H.R. 2181) passed the U.S. House of Representatives on October 30, 2019 with bipartisan support. Now, led by its sponsor, the legislation awaits action in the U.S. Senate.

Congressman Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) speaks to reporters and the public during a recent visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Photo Credit: U.S. House Committee on Natural Resources

Senators Tom Udall (D-NM) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM) also introduced companion legislation in the Senate, and are using the full weight of their offices to advance it. In fact, Secretary Bernhardt announced his moratorium only after Senator Heinrich took the Interior official to the national park so he could see the abundance of Indigenous, cultural, historical, and archaeological resources in harm’s way with his own eyes.

Shortly thereafter, Senator Udall reinforced how urgent these protections are  to, saying at a recent committee hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, “We see this in the Department’s efforts to expand oil and gas development in the region surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. The Department keeps pressing forward even though Native American Tribes and Congress have objected to the effect that this development will have on such a sacred landscape.”

Secretary Bernhardt’s one-year moratorium has bought much-needed time for the legislation to work its way through Congress and for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to draft its Resource Management Plan for the area. However, given the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agendastance and DOI’s very recent history of offering  oil and gas lease sales near the park despite prevalent local and tribal objections, permanent protections for the Greater Chaco Landscape are critical.

Additionally, while Secretary Bernhardt has spoken of how the forthcoming plan will address Tribes’ concerns for drilling around Chaco, it’s hard to take the secretary at his word. According to an analysis from Pew Charitable Trusts, during the Trump administration, BLM has released management plans for more than 20 million acres of public lands that “significantly reduces protections that have been in place for decades and proposes minimal new safeguards for only a fraction of 1 percent of the area.”

Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Photo Credit: The Office of Congresswoman Deb Haaland

Chaco is like no other place on earth. It is a living cultural landscape with significant architecture, pictographs and petroglyphs, and other resources that are reminders of the economic, agricultural, and ceremonial hub that the region was before extreme climate conditions forced the Chacoan peoples to abandon the settlements in the 13th century C.E.

The Greater Chaco Landscape connects the people of the American Southwest to our shared heritage, and it must be granted official federal protections before it is lost forever.

The Greater Chaco Landscape needs your help. Please send a message to Secretary Bernhardt and tell Interior to fully protect the ten-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in its preferred alternative draft Resource Management Plan. To send your message click here: https://p2a.co/6zMZjH6.

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