Press Release Jul 13, 2023

Defending Chaco: New Mexico Communities, Parks Groups Reject Legislative Attacks

"Attempts to nullify the withdrawal perpetuate the harmful legacy of oil and gas exploitation and completely dismiss Tribal and community voices calling for an end to reckless drilling in the area” -- NPCA's Emily Wolf


Albuquerque, NM – New Mexicans and national park advocates are expressing strong opposition to legislation recently introduced by Arizona Representative Elijah Crane aimed at reversing the withdrawal of new oil and gas leasing on federal public lands in New Mexico within a 10-mile protection zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and affirm support for measures enacted in June to protect the landscape from unnecessary oil and gas development.

After holding multiple public meetings and seeking comments from the public throughout 2022 – during which time more than 110,000 comments from people across the state and country were submitted in support of protecting the Greater Chaco Landscape – the Department of Interior (DOI) approved a 20-year mineral withdrawal prohibiting new oil and gas leasing on roughly 336,400 acres of federal public lands surrounding Chaco Canyon, a World Heritage Site.

This area and the connected landscape is historically, spiritually, and ecologically significant to numerous Pueblos and Tribes in the Southwest and its protection is critical. The withdrawal will not stop any existing leases from being developed, and does not include any private lands or allotments. Reflecting ongoing efforts to protect the landscape, it has been approximately 10 years since the Bureau of Land Management has leased parcels for oil and gas development within 10 miles of the park.

The withdrawal follows longtime efforts led by Pueblo and Diné leaders and community members, and actions by Congress to enact permanent protections. On May 3, 2023, New Mexico’s full congressional delegation – Senators Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich and Representatives Teresa Leger Fernández, Melanie Stansbury, and Gabe Vasquez – reintroduced the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would permanently protect the federal lands encompassed by the administrative withdrawal. Originally introduced in 2018 and passed with bipartisan support by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2019, the legislation would protect thousands of significant cultural properties and sites.

Long before the withdrawal process was initiated in late 2021, Pueblo and Tribal leaders and communities have called for protections of the interconnected landscape to protect sacred sites located outside the park boundaries, public health, and ecological resources. Over the years, reckless drilling has caused significant harm to the health of Indigenous and other local communities, lifeways, air quality, and cultural values in the landscape surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Over the past few decades, BLM has leased over 90 percent of federal lands surrounding Chaco Canyon for drilling, and oil and gas companies have drilled more than 37,000 wells in the area.

Oil and gas wells, roads, pipelines, and other infrastructure have destroyed significant cultural sites and transformed others into industrial parks. To allow more drilling in this area would completely disregard the calls from the Pueblos, Tribes, and other communities who share a deep connection to Chaco Canyon.

Support for Protecting Greater Chaco:

“The Native Land Institute stands in unwavering support of President Biden’s and Secretary Haaland’s recent decision to safeguard the Greater Chaco Landscape from new oil and gas drilling for the next two decades. This decision honors the relentless efforts of both Dine’ and Pueblo Indigenous communities and environmental defenders who have tirelessly advocated for protecting these lands for years, said Keegan King, Executive Director of the Native Land Institute. Any attempts to reverse this protective withdrawal overlook this monumental achievement and undermine the indigenous voices and local communities who have worked on this issue for over a decade. We have a shared duty to ensure these invaluable lands, rich with cultural and ecological value, are preserved for the benefit of future generations.”

“National Parks Conservation Association stands with Pueblo and Diné communities and leadership who have long advocated for measures which protect sacred sites, community health, and ecological resources, and works toward broader climate goals,” said Emily Wolf, New Mexico Senior Program Coordinator for the National Parks Conservation Association. “We applaud Secretary Haaland’s decision to enact the 20-year withdrawal as a crucial step toward safeguarding this landscape. Attempts to nullify the withdrawal perpetuate the harmful legacy of oil and gas exploitation and completely dismiss Tribal and community voices calling for an end to reckless drilling in the area.”

“We at Archaeology Southwest, together with our partners with the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), Pueblo of Acoma, and other Pueblo descendant communities, as well as our environmental partners, are thrilled that the 10-mile Federal mineral withdrawal around Chaco has been finalized and is in place for 20 years,” said Paul Reed, preservation archaeologist for Archaeology Southwest. “Protecting Greater Chaco from more drilling honors the decades-long effort on behalf of Pueblos, Tribes, and communities to protect the ancestral places, landscape, and history of the Pueblo people. The structures, sacred places, and other cultural resources in Chaco Canyon have stood for hundreds of years, and if all of us do our part and act as good stewards, they can stand for hundreds more.”

“Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior made the right decision when they protected the Greater Chaco Landscape,” said Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director with Environment New Mexico. “The wildlife and people who live in the area have already suffered from the effects of drilling. We need more nature, not more oil and gas. We’ve made so much progress and this bill would move us backwards.”

“The Biden administration’s approval of a 20-year ban on new oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park represents an important milestone in protecting this irreplaceable cultural landscape for future generations,” said Sally Paez, staff attorney for New Mexico Wild. “The action also promotes President Biden’s broader conservation agenda by protecting night skies, paleontology, remnant wildness, natural beauty, and wildlife habitat. Moreover, prohibiting new leasing is critical to combating climate change and improving air quality and public health. New Mexico Wild is proud to stand in solidarity with Indigenous leaders and local communities who advocated for this withdrawal throughout a robust stakeholder engagement process.”

“President Biden and Secretary Deb Haaland’s decision to safeguard the Greater Chaco Region from new oil and gas leasing is critical to protecting these culturally and ecologically significant lands and the communities living there today,” said Michael Casaus, New Mexico State Director of The Wilderness Society. “Efforts to reverse the withdrawal not only disregard this hard fought, Indigenous-led win, but are also a direct attack on nearby communities’ rights to clean air, water, and healthy lives. We stand with the tens of thousands of Indigenous Peoples and others who advocated for over a decade to protect the Greater Chaco Region and who made this withdrawal possible.”

“The Conservation Lands Foundation reaffirms our support of the Biden administration’s action to protect the greater Chaco Canyon landscape from new oil and gas leasing. Recent attempts to nullify this action is an affront to the Pueblo and Diné communities who have advocated for the protection of this region for decades,” said Romir Lahiri, New Mexico Associate Program Director for the Conservation Lands Foundation. “Protecting the Greater Chaco Canyon landscape is essential to safeguard the cultural continuity of Tribal Nations, mitigate the effects of the climate and biodiversity crisis, and protect the way of life for local residents.”

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