Protect Greater Chaco from oil and gas development
Here are ways you can support the efforts to protect Greater Chaco
The Threat of Oil and Gas Development
The Farmington field office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has completed the public comment process on a draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) with potentially devastating impacts for the public lands near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The BLM's decision to complete the process is troubling given that Navajo, Pueblo, and congressional leaders called on the agency to suspend the process until the global pandemic has ended.
We were initially pleased to see that Secretary Bernhardt extended the public comment period for 120 days to September 25. It was the right decision at the time to listen to the All Pueblo Council of Governors, the Navajo Nation, New Mexico's entire Congressional delegation, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Commissioner of Public Lands Stephanie Garcia Richard, New Mexico Wild and our conservation partners. However, as the covid-19 pandemic continued to devastate tribal and pueblo communities, it became clear that the process should be postponed indefinitely.
At New Mexico Wild, we used the last few months to urge BLM to choose Alternative B-1, the plan that most closely resembles legislation introduced by New Mexico's entire Congressional delegation to create a ten-mile protective buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. We called on our supporters to make their voices heard and the result was an overwhelming response calling for strong protections for Greater Chaco that Interior Secretary Bernhardt would be hard-pressed to ignore. Overall, New Mexico Wild's supporters submitted over 3,500 public comments urging the BLM to postpone the process until tribal and pueblo communities can safely and adequately participate; to choose Alternative B-1 to uphold Secretary Bernhardt's promise to protect the public lands in the Greater Chaco region; and to consider Lands with Wilderness Characteristics in its final plan.
We are also pleased that New Mexico's House delegation helped pass an appropriations bill on July 24, 2020 that extends a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco region for another year! However, we know that until these protections are made permanent, Chaco will continue to face threats from industry.
Despite Chaco’s rich cultural ties to past and present, its awesome archeological resources and its sensitive natural landscapes, development in the San Juan Basin continues to threaten special cultural and natural areas both within and outside of Chaco Culture National Historic Park. The oil and gas industry has expanded development to lands that were previously not cost-effective to tap, leaving more lands vulnerable than ever before. Proposed expansions of oil and gas development on nearby Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands continue to threaten special cultural areas both within and outside of the Park, connective corridor spanning from the Park to the Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness and Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness.
Chaco Culture National Historic Park preserves a major prehistoric center of ceremony and trade in the San Juan Basin just south of Farmington, New Mexico. Natural beauty and cultural significance meet in this area of northwestern New Mexico where ruins, artifacts, and other archeological sites radiate from Chaco Canyon’s cultural epicenter. The extensive and well-preserved cultural history found here earned designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Around 200 A.D., the first farmers settled in what is now Chaco, using agriculture to supplement hunting and gathering and building small pithouses on the mesa for shelter. This era of early Pueblo culture lasted more than a half-century until drastic changes in the complexity and scale of building construction changed the face of both the culture and the landscape. For three hundred years, this new version of Pueblo culture (coined Anasazi) flourished, constructing impressive buildings and roads throughout the Greater Chaco Region, with Chaco Canyon as the epicenter. And then…. they vanished, abandoning Chaco Canyon around 1150 A.D. There are many ideas about the cause of this sudden exodus, including prolonged drought, but the likely complex reasons for this exodus remain a mystery.
Chacoan Great Houses
Amazing building skills are what most define the Chaco Culture. Massive greathouses are a significant divergence from traditional Pueblo settlements. Greathouses are unusually large multi-story masonry buildings made of stacked stone (usually sandstone) and mortar. In addition to their size, highly refined masonry techniques and advanced engineering make these structures truly spectacular featuring hundreds of rooms, some very large, and several circular kivas built within the main structure (in traditional Pueblo domestic settlements kivas were located in a central plaza). Each greathouse also had a separate great kiva nearby. Over 200 outlying Chacoan greathouses exist in the Greater Chaco Region with a bit of mystery still surrounding their purpose. Some believe they served as the center for massive settlements, while others them as trade centers or ceremonial developments.
Oil and gas development on state and BLM lands near the park have already impacted the Greater Chaco Landscape
Chacoan roads are another defining aspect of the Chaco Culture. An elaborate road system served to connect great houses and significant landscape features across the Greater Chaco Region. There are over 100 miles of prehistoric roads associated with Chaco, some of which can still be traced today. Like Chacoan great houses, these roads were massive and built with a high level of engineering skill. They were also remarkably linear. While most roads and trails contour with the landscape, Chacoan roads follow direct lines to a destination, often going over, rather than contouring around, major landscape features and taking angular bends instead of gentle curves. Some of these roads extended for miles in a single direction.
Chaco Culture was intimately linked to the stars. The Chacoan people were expert skywatchers, with a strong connection between celestial events and daily life. This connection to the stars is evident in the architecture of the great houses where architectural features are aligned with significant astronomical events. Similar alignments are found in observational and ceremonial sites throughout the Greater Chaco Region.
With astronomy as a center point of culture, dark night skies were an integral component of Chacoan life. This feature is largely preserved today as the night sky of the Greater Chaco Region remains one of the most unpolluted in the U.S. This unique characteristic is threatened by encroaching large-scale oil and gas development.
The Greater Chaco Landscape
The Greater Chaco Region radiates from the main park at its center, expanding across the Four Corners Region and the San Juan Basin with ties to other well-known cultural sites such as Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients, Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Aztec Ruins. Chacoan roads, greathouses, villages, sacred sites and other places of significance are scattered across this larger landscape. Chaco and the Greater Chaco Region continue to retain significance to modern-day indigenous peoples as a connection to their ancestors and history, places of traditional use and sacred sites, and for some their home.
Buffer around Chaco and outlier sites
Conservation groups have been advocating for a moratorium on leasing within a 10 to 20-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park and sufficient buffers around outlier sites to protect their cultural values. With the agency currently completing an amendment to their land-use plan to address increased oil and gas development in the Mancos-Gallup Formation near the park, groups have asked that all leasing within this buffer be postponed until the plan amendment is finalized. The agency has not formally agreed to this and has instead postponed leases in the buffer zone on a case-by-case basis.
Tribal consultation and interagency cooperation in management decisions
Interagency and inter-tribal cooperation and tribal consultation by agencies are important components of ensuring Chaco’s past, present and future are protected. We support government-to-government consultation between tribal governments and federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and National Park Service (NPS) during actions or management plans that may affect Chaco Canyon, traditional cultural properties and sacred sites in the Greater Chaco Region. This cooperation should also consider preservation of Chaco’s dark night skies and the sensitive natural landscapes and ecology of the Greater Chaco Region.