New Mexicans Applaud the Introduction of Legislation to Protect Public Lands Surrounding Chaco Canyon from Oil and Gas Drilling

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 18, 2022
Contact: Mark Allisonmark@nmwild.org , (505) 239-0906

New Mexicans Applaud the Introduction of Legislation to Protect Public Lands Surrounding Chaco Canyon from Oil and Gas Drilling

Diverse supporters push for a mineral withdrawal on public lands 

Albuquerque, NM – New Mexicans are applauding the reintroduction of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, introduced by Senators Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich, and Congresswomen Teresa Leger Fernandez and Melanie Stansbury. The legislation will permanently protect federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park from new oil and gas leasing. Originally introduced in 2019 and passed by the U.S. House of Representatives, the legislation would protect nearly 339,000 acres of federal public lands containing thousands of significant cultural properties and sites. 

This reintroduction comes just after the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has launched a 30-day public comment period to move forward with a proposed 20-year mineral withdrawal of  federal lands and minerals within this 10-miles protection zone around Chaco Canyon.

Last June, following the initial comment period, the All Pueblo Council of Governors traveled to Washington, DC urging the Biden administration to protect Chaco Canyon. In a press release, they stated, “The All Pueblo Council of Governors represents the 20 sovereign Pueblo Nations of New Mexico and Texas, all of which support a withdrawal of public lands in an especially critical 10-mile withdrawal area surrounding Chaco Canyon from mineral development, including oil and gas leasing.” Additionally, the BLM received over 80,000 public comments in support of the 10-mile withdrawal.  

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 Indigenous 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” as the culture and heritage of the Indigenous peoples of the American Southwest are inextricably linked to lasting protections for the Greater Chaco Landscape.

Over the years, reckless drilling has caused significant harm to the health of Indigenous and other local 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 proposed legislation would ensure the permanent protection of roughly 339,000 acres of public lands 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 does not include any private lands or allotments, is historically, spiritually, and ecologically significant to numerous Tribes in the Southwest, and its protection is critical.  

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

“We are grateful to Senators Luján and Heinrich and Congresswomen Leger Fernandez and Stansbury, for championing this issue and reintroducing the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act,” 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. Protecting Chaco from more drilling honors the decades-long effort on behalf of Pueblos, Tribes, and communities to protect this 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 Romir Lahiri, New Mexico Associate Program Director for 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 thank Senators Lujan and Heinrich, Representatives Leger Fernandez and Stansbury, and Secretary Haaland for listening to the local and Indigenous communities leading this effort and ensuring 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 and we applaud our Senators and Representatives for introducing legislation to permanently protect the area.”

“National Parks Conservation Association is proud and honored to be part of the multi-year effort to protect the greater Chaco landscape led by Pueblo and Diné organizers, along with other community, conservation and historic preservation allies. NPCA has seen overwhelming support from our members and supporters across the U.S. for ending new leasing on federal lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park to protect and help heal this globally important cultural landscape. We thank Senators Luján and Heinrich and Representatives Leger Fernandez and Stansbury for their leadership to ensure permanent protection and avoid further damage to the unique cultural, geological and ecological values of this landscape, as well as protecting the health of vulnerable communities and Tribes who live in and practice traditional activities throughout the area,” said Emily Wolf, New Mexico Senior 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. “Thanks to Senators Luján and Heinrich, Congresswomen Leger Fernández and Stansbury for their leadership t in these protections that are critical to safeguard this treasure for future generations,” said Andrew Black, Public Lands Field Director for the National Wildlife Federation.“We thank Senators Luján and Heinrich, Congresswomen Leger Fernández and Stansbury, and Secretary Haaland for their leadership proposing these mineral withdrawals in this one-of-a-kind and sacred place. Greater Chaco constitutes a living cultural landscape to the Puebloan and Diné 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.”

“Chaco Canyon is a special place that holds significant ancestral, cultural, and historical ties for the Pueblo and Diné peoples. We thank Senator Luján and Congresswoman Leger Fernandez, as well as Senator Heinrich and Congresswoman Stansbury, for reintroducing the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would permanently withdraw the federal lands around Chaco Canyon from further mineral development and ensure that Chaco is protected for years to come,” said Kacey Hovden, New Mexico Program Manager for Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project. “We are excited for more deliberate engagement with indigenous communities and increased indigenous leadership and partnership as we move forward together in protecting this space.”

“Today, we stand with the tens of thousands of Indigenous Peoples and others in the Greater Chaco Region and beyond supporting permanent protection for this sacred landscape from more drilling,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director of The Wilderness Society. “We continue to throw our advocacy behind the 20-year withdrawal, and we know the Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act is needed as a permanent reprieve from the threats facing these culturally important lands and the communities living here today. We thank Senators Luján and Heinrich and Representatives Leger Fernández and Stansbury for their work to introduce this critical legislation.”

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 Canyon 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.

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