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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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