Conservation Groups, Advocates Deliver More Than 80,000 Public Comments In Support of Protecting Chaco Canyon from Oil and Gas Drilling

WASHINGTON – Today, conservation groups and advocates delivered more than 80,000 public comments to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in support of the agency’s proposed mineral withdrawal for the federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The withdrawal would prevent new federal oil and gas leasing for the next 20 years. 

With just 13 hours left before the public comment period closes, tens of thousands of people have commented and shown overwhelming support for these protections.  

The Greater Chaco Landscape includes Chaco Culture National Historical Park and dozens of ancient villages, roads, and shrines that were built by the ancestors of the Pueblos, Navajo Nation, and the Hopi Tribe, and other Indigneous Nations which emerged and flourished in Chaco Canyon between 850 and 1250 A.D.. Chaco Canyon has also been designated as a “World Heritage Site” because the culture and heritage of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest are inextricably linked to the ongoing protection of the Greater Chaco Landscape.

Over the years, reckless drilling has caused significant harm to the health of local and Indigenous communities, air quality, and cultural values in the landscape surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Oil and gas wells, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure have destroyed significant cultural sites and transformed others into industrial parks. To allow more drilling in this area would completely disregard the calls from the Pueblos, Tribes, and other communities who share a deep connection to Chaco Canyon.  

The Biden administration’s withdrawal would ensure the protection of roughly 350,000 acres surrounding the park, which contain thousands of archaeological and cultural sites, and would also help protect local communities from the impacts of additional drilling. The land that is being considered for withdrawal from future leasing is historically, spiritually, and ecologically significant to Indigenous communities, and its protection is critical.  

Below, several coalition members have released statements detailing what this broad support for increased protections means for Chaco as the Department of Interior works to finalize its proposed withdrawal. 

“We are thankful the Biden administration is on its way to providing the long-term protections the Greater Chaco Landscape needs, with the Bureau of Land Management poised to finalize an oil and gas leasing withdrawal within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” said Paul F. Reed, preservation archaeologist at Archaeology Southwest. “We have pushed for the 10-mile cultural protection zone since 2016 and are pleased with this very important action. Protecting Chaco from more drilling honors the decades-long effort on behalf of Pueblos, Tribes, and communities to protect the ancestral culture, landscape, and history of the Pueblo people who created this amazing place. The structures, sacred places, and other cultural resources in Chaco Canyon have stood for hundreds of years, and if we do our part and act as good stewards, they can stand for hundreds more.”

“Conservation Lands Foundation stands with the Pueblos of New Mexico and the American Southwest in strong support of protecting the Greater Chaco Landscape,” said Brian Sybert, executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation. “The Chaco region has withstood enough oil and gas drilling. These living landscapes offer an irreplaceable window to the region’s history and continue to provide for contemporary indigenous cultures. We urge the Biden administration to listen to the local and Indigenous communities leading this effort and ensure protection for these national and cultural treasures.”

“The Greater Chaco landscape is a critical part of our collective cultural, historical and biological heritage. Protecting the Greater Chaco is necessary to preserve the region’s rare species and ecosystems that are already under pressure from grazing and mineral and fossil fuel extraction,” said Ellen Montgomery, Public Lands Campaign director with Environment New Mexico and Environment America. “Drilling disturbs the habitats of the elk, bobcats, rabbits, porcupines, badgers, wild horses and more than 100 bird species that live in and around the canyon. Not only that, but extracting fossil fuels from beneath the land impacts the health of the people who live there by creating disruptive noise, and bringing in people and equipment that pollute the air, land and water. We urge the BLM to protect the Greater Chaco area by preventing future fossil fuel leases.”

“As the multi-year fight continues to protect the greater Chaco landscape, NPCA is grateful to join the effort led by Pueblo and Diné organizers and leaders along with fellow community, conservation and historic preservation allies. NPCA has seen overwhelming support from our members and supporters across New Mexico and beyond for a 20-year ban on new development on federal lands, to protect and help heal this landscape. And we urge Congress to approve permanent, broader solutions to protect and avoid causing irreparable damage to the cultural, geological and ecological values of cultural sites, communities and Tribes who live and practice traditional activities across this landscape,” said Emily Wolf, New Mexico Program Coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association.

“Chaco Canyon is a spectacular landscape that tells the story of the rich history, culture, spirituality, and resilience of Indigenous communities throughout the Southwest and remains a sacred place for Indigenous people today. It is also home to a diverse array of wildlife and remarkable biodiversity. The Biden Administration’s proposed protections from future oil and gas development around Chaco are critical to safeguard this treasure for future generations,” said Andrew Black, public lands field director for the National Wildlife Federation. “Nearly 17,000 of our members spoke out in strong support of the administration’s common-sense plan and we urge the Department of Interior to swiftly implement these protections.”

“We thank Secretary Haaland for her leadership proposing this administrative mineral withdrawal in this one-of-a-kind and sacred place. Greater Chaco constitutes a living cultural landscape to the Puebloan and Dine’ people. Respect for this alone demands that protections be put in place,” said Mark Allison, Executive Director of New Mexico Wild. “Greater Chaco is also important for its night skies, paleontology, remnant wildness, natural beauty, and wildlife habitat. Prohibiting new leasing is critical to combating climate change and improving air quality and public health. New Mexico Wild is proud to stand in solidarity with the All Pueblo Council of Governors and their leadership calling for this crucial step toward providing the Greater Chaco Landscape the protections that it deserves.”

“It is long overdue that Indigenous Peoples lead the way in care taking for their sacred, ancestral places. This proposed withdrawal is not only an opportunity for the BLM to prevent future environmental desecration of this sacred landscape, but also an opportunity for the Biden Administration to enter into the appropriate relationship with Indigenous Peoples and strengthen community involvement in public lands management,” said Norma Charez, board member for Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. “Places like Chaco Canyon hold irreplaceable memories and stories that deserve protection for our future generations. We support the proposed mineral withdrawal and urge the Department of the Interior to work closely with Pueblo, Diné peoples and local communities to implement extended protections of the Greater Chaco Canyon region.”

“Today, we stand with the tens of thousands of Indigenous Peoples and others in the Greater Chaco Region and beyond supporting a mineral withdrawal to protect this sacred landscape from more drilling,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director of The Wilderness Society. “This withdrawal would be a reprieve from the threats facing these culturally significant lands and the communities living here today, but there is a vital need to do more to permanently protect these lands and address the health impacts from a legacy of drilling in the region. We urge the New Mexico delegation and the Department of the Interior to work with Indigenous communities to develop permanent protections for these lands and the surrounding communities.”

Additional Background:

The proposed withdrawal would only impact federal surface and subsurface land. It would not impact Navajo and private land that is checkerboarded within the zone, so Tribal members who live in the area would still be able to freely use and develop their land.

Additionally, beyond the ten-mile zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park there are much broader threats to cultural and natural resources and communities in northwestern New Mexico. Over the past few decades, BLM has leased over 90 percent of 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) that’s five times greater than the distance from Los Angeles to New York.