Visitor Center at Chaco Culture National Historical Park
The visitor center at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, with Fajada Butte visible in the distance (Photo: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion is mov­ing to imple­ment a twen­ty year ban on oil and gas leas­ing on fed­er­al land with­in a ten mile radius of Cha­co Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park in north­west­ern New Mex­i­co, the sacred and majes­tic site of an Ances­tral Ple­bloan admin­is­tra­tive and cul­tur­al cen­ter cre­at­ed in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and aban­doned about 1150 A.D.

The action, announced at the White House Trib­al Nations Sum­mit, revers­es poli­cies of the Trump regime. After ini­tial­ly hes­i­tat­ing, it adopt­ed a drill-baby-drill approach propos­ing to approve 2,300 oil and gas wells in the area.

U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Deb Haa­land, the first Native Amer­i­can to hold the Cab­i­net post, said in a state­ment: “Cha­co Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep mean­ing for Indige­nous peo­ples whose ances­tors lived, worked and thrived in that high desert community.”

Visitor Center at Chaco Culture National Historical Park
The vis­i­tor cen­ter at Cha­co Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park, with Faja­da Butte vis­i­ble in the dis­tance (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

Haa­land, a for­mer mem­ber of Con­gress from New Mex­i­co, added: “Now is the time to con­sid­er more endur­ing pro­tec­tions for the liv­ing land­scape that is Cha­co, so that we can pass on this rich cul­tur­al lega­cy to future generations.”

Sit­u­at­ed in the remote Four Cor­ners area, reached by a rough road, Cha­co Cul­ture con­tains remains of stone build­ings and Great Hous­es that were once among the largest struc­tures in North America.

Larg­er build­ings were aligned to cap­ture cycles of the Sun and Moon, demon­strat­ing remark­able astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tion and skill at construction.

The city was aban­doned, and par­tial­ly destroyed, about 1150 A.D., per­haps as the result of a drought. It remains a haunt­ing place, flanked by mesas and cliffs that glis­ten after an after­noon thun­der­storm. The vis­i­tor wan­ders through rooms and won­ders the dis­tance wood was car­ried and then sawed to con­struct a city in this high, dry set­ting. The park is also renowned for night skies free of light pollution.

Ancient ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Pueblo ruins at Cha­co Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park. Cha­co Cul­ture con­tains the most sweep­ing set of ancient ruins north of Mex­i­co, includ­ing Chetro Ketl, the Pueblo Alto com­plex, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Pueblo Boni­to (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

The oil and gas indus­try has turned sec­tions of the San Juan Basin into a cen­ter of the car­bon cul­ture and economy.

It has “safe­ly pro­vid­ed oil and nat­ur­al gas in the Basin for decades while at the same time pro­tect­ing the cul­tur­al and his­toric trea­sures through­out the region,” said New Mex­i­co Oil & Gas Asso­ci­a­tion spokesman Rob McEntyre.

He crit­i­cized the Biden-Har­ris admin­is­tra­tion for putting “arbi­trary lim­its on devel­op­ment in the region.”

Ex‑U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Bruce Bab­bitt, a for­mer Ari­zona gov­er­nor, put a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on drill-baby-drill in a recent post for Writ­ers on the Range.

“If you vis­it the area you will imme­di­ate­ly see the blight that comes from oil and gas pro­duc­tion: More than 30,000 wells have been drilled in the region, yet 10,000 of these are inac­tive and many will nev­er be plugged and reclaimed,” Bab­bitt wrote. “Sacred land­scapes have been trans­formed into an indus­tri­al waste­land lit­tered with rusty tanks and drill pads and con­nect­ed by now-aban­doned roads and pipelines.”

The extrac­tion of nat­ur­al gas has involved frack­ing wells as well as methane flush­ing and con­struc­tion of hold­ing tanks.

“We can­not sus­tain our Sacred Trust when sacred sites like Cha­co are destroyed, as the region is quin­tes­sen­tial to our very exis­tence,” the All Pueblo Coun­cil of Gov­er­nors said in reac­tion to the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion action.

Added Wil­fred Her­rera, for­mer gov­er­nor of the Lagu­na Pueblo and chair­man of the APCG: “Cha­co Canyon has a pro­found con­tri­bu­tion to the his­to­ry of humankind, and for all who have heard the call, we are grateful.”

The with­draw­al from leas­ing will not impact indi­vid­ual Indi­an allot­ments or min­er­al leas­es with­in the area owned by pri­vate, state and trib­al enti­ties, the White House said in its announce­ment. The U.S. Bureau of Land Man­age­ment will ini­tial­ly set aside fed­er­al land for two years as it does an envi­ron­men­tal analy­sis and gath­ers pub­lic com­ment before imple­ment­ing the two-decade ban.

Pet­ro­glyphs on the Una Vida Trail at Cha­co Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park. Una Vida is a Cha­coan “great house” — “a large pre-planned mul­ti-sto­ried pub­lic build­ing with dis­tinc­tive mason­ry, for­mal earth­en archi­tec­ture, and a great kiva,” accord­ing to the Nation­al Park Ser­vice. (Pho­to: Andrew Villeneuve/NPI)

“We look for­ward to kick­ing off a broad­er region­al con­ver­sa­tion with the many peo­ple who care deeply about the Greater Cha­co land­scape on how we can best man­age the cul­tur­al and nat­ur­al val­ues unique to this spe­cial place,” said BLM Direc­tor Tra­cy Stone-Manning.

The drilling ban around Cha­co Cul­ture rep­re­sents the lat­est rever­sal of Trump Admin­is­tra­tion pub­lic lands pol­i­cy, par­tic­u­lar­ly in the Southwest.

Weeks ago, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion moved to restore the Bears Ears and Grand Stair­case-Escalante Nation­al Mon­u­ments in South­ern Utah, both evis­cer­at­ed by the Trump regime.

The Bears Ears Mon­u­ment, cre­at­ed at the urg­ing of Native Amer­i­can groups, was slashed from 1.3 mil­lion acres to 210,000 acres.

With oil and gas leas­ing around Cha­co Cul­ture, then‑U.S. Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Ryan Zine ini­tial­ly held off leas­ing in the face of protests, but the depart­ment then pro­posed 2,300 wells in the area.

“The last admin­is­tra­tion couldn’t come to the view of just leav­ing it alone, so kept kind of propos­ing dif­fer­ent lease sales,” Deputy Inte­ri­or Sec­re­tary Tom­my Tom­my Beau­dreau told a con­fer­ence orga­nized by the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago.

Cha­co Cul­ture Nation­al His­tor­i­cal Park was named a UNESCO (Unit­ed Nations Edu­ca­tion­al, Sci­en­tif­ic and Cul­tur­al Orga­ni­za­tion) World Her­itage Site in 1987.

About the author

Joel Connelly is a Northwest Progressive Institute contributor who has reported on multiple presidential campaigns and from many national political conventions. During his career at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, he interviewed Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and George H.W. Bush. He has covered Canada from Trudeau to Trudeau, written about the fiscal meltdown of the nuclear energy obsessed WPPSS consortium (pronounced "Whoops") and public lands battles dating back to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.

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