Interior head: Chaco protections ‘millennia in the making’

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, N.M. . -- A few large rigs hauled oilfield equipment along a winding road that ran near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It cut through desert badlands, sage, and sage. The landscape was dotted with mobile homes and traditional Navajo dwellings, as well as a few natural gas wells.

Interior head: Chaco protections ‘millennia in the making’

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, N.M. . -- A few large rigs hauled oilfield equipment along a winding road that ran near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It cut through desert badlands, sage, and sage. The landscape was dotted with mobile homes and traditional Navajo dwellings, as well as a few natural gas wells.

This area of northern New Mexico has been the focus of a long-running battle for oil and gas development.

U.S. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined the pueblo leaders to reflect on last week's announcement that her office would seek to remove federal land holdings within ten miles (16 km) of its boundaries. This would make the area inaccessible to oil and gas leasing for the next 20 years.

The federal government is considering a withdrawal and the action will stop any new leases being made in the area for two years.

Haaland stated that this celebration has been decades in the making. "Many would even call it millennia in progress."

The Chaco area is significant to many Southwest Indigenous peoples. However, the Navajo Nation manages large swathes of land within the park's jurisdiction. Some belong to individual Navajos, who were given land by the federal government many generations ago.

Navajo leaders are supportive of preserving some areas, but they have stated that individual allottees could lose an important source of income if the land was made off-limits for development. As a compromise, they are calling for a smaller federal buffer around the park to protect Navajo's financial interests.

Before Monday's U.S. visit, signs are visible along the road that leads to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

Monday's brightly-colored signs lining the rough road to the park were a support for the allottees. Many of them noted the importance of oil and natural gas development to their livelihoods.

"Our land, our minerals. One sign read, "We support oil and gas."

Another claimed that Haaland had not met with allottees. Later, Haaland said to reporters that Interior officials had spoken with allottees.

Environmentalists, Democratic politicians, and other tribes were pressing Haaland to be the first Native American to head a U.S. agency. Protect a large area of land beyond the park by creating a Cabinet agency.

Haaland, a former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico was instrumental in sponsoring legislation to stop oil and gas drilling during her term in the U.S. House. The area is sacred to her, she said, because it holds deep meaning to those whose ancestors called the high desert home.

Haaland stated Monday that "This is a living environment." It is visible in the sun, clouds and wind. It's easy to picture centuries-old children running through the open space, people moving in every direction, singing their harvest, or preparing food for the coming seasons. This is a bustling, vibrant community.

Chaco, a World Heritage Site, is believed to be the heart of an area that was once home to Indigenous civilization. The park's canyon floor is surrounded by walls of stacked stone, which are perfectly aligned to the seasons and the movements of the sun or moon. The desert floor is dotted with kivas, which are circular subterranean rooms.

Archaeologists believe that more discoveries will be made in the area.

Multiple presidential administrations have been involved in the fight against drilling outside of the park. Trump and Obama also placed leases in the vicinity of the park on hold through agency actions. However, activists want the park to be permanently protected.

Although the Biden administration and Haaland’s agency have vowed consultation with tribes in the coming two years while the withdrawal proposal is being considered, top Navajo leaders have already suggested that they are being ignored. The highest elected tribal leaders in the legislative and executive branches were absent Monday.

Daniel Tso, Navajo Nation Council Delegate, spoke about the important cultural ties the Navajos share with the region and raised concerns about increased traffic, dust, and other pollution caused by oil and gas development. The recent executive orders were a "giant leap" he said.

Daniel Tso, a Navajo Council Delegate, discusses pollution concerns from oil-and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

He said, "It creates an environment where we must continue to stand for the land and stand up to the air, the water, and the sacred."

Other tribal legislators and allottees called for congressional field hearings before any decisions are made.

"The Interior Department unilaterally proposed to withdraw this proposal without proper tribal consultation. This directly affects our families on the Navajo Nation." "The (Bureau of Land Management), now wants to initiate formal tribe consultation after the fact," Mark Freeland, a Navajo Council Delegate, stated last week in response to Haaland’s announcement.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon also has said the Biden administration needs to respect tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship it has with the tribe.

According to federal officials, the ban on new petroleum leases in the region will not affect existing rights or leases. It would also not apply to minerals that are owned by tribal, state, or private entities. According to the Navajo allottees, it would not be economically feasible for companies to continue their development on their land.

Officials from the Navajo noted that Congress had ordered a cultural resource study of the area by experts. They suggested that the Biden administration wait for the results of this investigation to be completed before initiating the 20 year withdrawal.

Haaland encouraged everyone to contribute to land management in the future. When she saw the care taken to set the stones at Chaco, she thought of her grandmother's Mesita Village home, Laguna Pueblo. It was a beautiful place that embraced its residents and visitors with love and warmth.

She stated that "all of us have a responsibility to future generations to care for our American heritage" and to model our care for the earth after those who lived in these structures.

Updated Date: 23 November 2021, 14:32

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