It’s time to finally protect Chaco Canyon

BY MARK MITCHELL / CHAIRMAN, ALL PUEBLO COUNCIL OF GOVERNORS; FORMER GOVERNOR, TESUQUE PUEBLO

The Greater Chaco Region is a sacred landscape unlike any other, and our efforts to preserve it have spanned generations. Now, the Interior Department (DOI) is contemplating a proposal to withdraw federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Chaco Canyon) from mineral development, including oil and gas leasing. DOI’s proposed action withdraws only new federal lands and minerals from development, leaving all state, tribal, allottee-owned and other private lands excluded. Pueblos, tribes and other stakeholders have the opportunity to secure some of the protections we have long sought. The recent public comment period for this proposal drew an overwhelming 80,000 comments advocating for long-term protections. On behalf of the pueblo people who have worked for generations to make our voices heard in support of protecting Chaco, it’s time to give this historic landscape the safeguards it deserves.

That’s why a delegation of the All Pueblo Council of Governors traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with DOI and members of Congress to urge them to act. Protecting federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon would be a significant step forward and help ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to connect with and experience this important place. Over the years, over 90% of available federal lands surrounding Chaco Canyon have been leased for drilling, and oil and gas companies have drilled over 37,000 wells in the region. The landscape has been completely remade, as oil and gas development has permanently destroyed significant cultural features, including segments of the Great North Road, and has transformed many other important sites into “industrial parks.” But this intensive development tapers off about 10 miles from Chaco Canyon, which is why it’s so critical we protect these last remaining undeveloped federal lands.

We also support much broader protections for the Greater Chaco region. Our ancestors once occupied all of northwestern New Mexico and beyond, building villages, maintaining farms and unifying their communities with hundreds of miles of roads and pathways, some of which are still visible today. We look forward to supporting DOI as it and Congress will take steps to better protect them from development. We are also very aware that other tribal communities now occupy lands once inhabited by our ancestors, and for too long these communities have dealt first-hand with the consequences of oil and gas development. Their air and water are polluted, and their health has suffered. For all of us, this must change.

For generations now, Indigenous peoples have called for protections from mineral development for Chaco Canyon. Through a broad group of tribal leaders, the N.M. congressional delegation and other stakeholders, we have joined together to develop protections in an especially critical 10-mile withdrawal area surrounding Chaco Canyon.

We hope President Biden and Secretary Deb Haaland will honor the requests of pueblo and tribal communities and, as quickly as possible, finalize the proposed withdrawal for federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon. We also hope this is just the start of the healing process for the Greater Chaco region, and that with help from the N.M. delegation and the rest of Congress, we can ensure permanent cultural protections for the broader landscape and heal the communities that have suffered for too long.

This article was written by Mark Allison, New Mexico Wild Executive Director

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