Oil and gas leases on hold around New Mexico’s Chaco Park
Albuquerque, New Mexico New oil and gas leases will be prohibited within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for the next two years as officials consider a proposal to withdraw federal land in the area from development for 20 years, the United States Department of the Interior said Monday.
The announcement came as environmentalists, some Native American tribes, and Democratic politicians lobbied Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to take administrative action to protect a large swathe of land in northwest New Mexico that is important to many indigenous peoples in the southwest.
The first Native American to hold a cabinet position, Haaland of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. She described the area as sacred and emphasized its importance on Monday, saying it had deep meaning to those whose ancestors once called the high desert home.
“Now is the time to consider more permanent protection of the living landscape that is the Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations,” Haaland said in a statement. “I appreciate and appreciate the many tribal leaders, elected officials and stakeholders who have insisted in their work To keep this private area.”
A world heritage site, the Chaco is believed to be the center of what was once a center of indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone protrude from the bottom of the valley, some of them perfectly in line with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Underground circular chambers called kivas cut into the desert floor. Outside the park, archaeologists said, there are more discoveries waiting to be made.
The struggle to dig outside Chaco’s borders has been going on for decades and has spanned several presidential administrations. The Trump and Obama administrations have also suspended leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but activists want more permanent measures that future presidential administrations cannot upend.
Haaland was among the sponsors of legislation calling for greater protections around the Chaco during her tenure in the US House of Representatives, but calls have mounted for her to use administrative powers to create a buffer zone around the Chaco pending the outcome of the federal legislation.
Over the next two years, the Bureau of Land Management will be tasked with conducting an environmental analysis and collecting public comment on the proposed administrative withdrawal. The agency undertakes to consult with the tribes.
Federal officials said the new petroleum leasing ban in the area would not affect existing leases or rights and would not apply to minerals owned by private, government or tribal entities.
The impact of the 20-year withdrawal, if approved, is uncertain because the area is a jurisdictional swath of state, private, federal and tribal property.
Much of the land around the Chaco belongs to the largest indigenous tribe in the United States – the Navajo Nation – and to members of the individual Navajo tribe.
Navajo leaders have raised concerns about the size of the buffer zone around the Chaco. They have repeatedly called for field hearings in Congress before any decisions are made.
While they support preserving parts of the area, they said that the Navajo allotments would lose an important source of income if a 10-mile (16-kilometer) barrier was created around the park as proposed. They advocate placing a smaller area of federal land off limits for development as a compromise to protect Navajo financial interests.
“We support the protection of the Chaco Canyon area due to its historical and cultural importance to our Navajo people, but we also have to consider the concerns and rights of Navajo citizens who have designated land,” Navajo President Jonathan Nez said Monday. “There are many factors that need to be weighed very carefully.”
Neese said the tribe is willing to work with the Biden administration to address the issues as more details become available.
The All Pueblo Board of Governors, which represents 20 pueblos in New Mexico, welcomed the news and said it was the result of “unremitting prayers.” However, the group acknowledged that Haaland’s action was only a temporary measure and vowed to continue to seek permanent protection.
They also asked land administrators to ensure any development not affected by the moratorium meets current federal requirements, including cultural and environmental reviews.
As part of future work, federal officials plan to conduct a broader assessment of the area to account for sacred sites and cultural resources.
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