Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Chaco Canyon is not a collection of ancient ruins, but a living landscape.
During a gathering Monday of Indigenous leaders and elected officials at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Haaland said federal land management should reflect the values of the region’s “shared heritage.”
“It’s not difficult to imagine, centuries ago, children running around the open space, people moving in and out of doorways, singing in their harvests, or preparing food for seasons to come,” Haaland said. “A busy, thriving community.”
The event in northwest New Mexico came a week after the Interior Department announced a two-year pause of new oil and natural gas leasing on federal lands within a 10-mile radius of the park as the agency considers a 20-year ban on those lands.
Haaland, who is from Laguna Pueblo, said the government has a responsibility to care for natural resources like the Chacoan-Puebloan peoples who inhabited the region centuries ago.
“They used water wisely, they cultivated their food sustainably, they looked to the stars to plant and harvest,” she said. “They knew that we have only one planet. Not unlike our ancestors, the land gives us everything we need to sustain ourselves, and we must care for it.”
Many tribes and pueblos throughout the Southwest trace their ancestry back to the Chaco region.
But some of those connections have been weakened over time, said Carleton Bowekaty, lieutenant governor of Zuni Pueblo.
Bowekaty said he and his children once felt disconnected from their pueblo languages and traditions. Visiting Chacoan sites helped his family relearn those traditions.
“That is why Chaco is so important to me personally, and why it’s important for the pueblos, because it allows us to exist in the past and make our way in the present, and it will allow our children to have a future,” Bowekaty said.
The coalition of tribal leaders acknowledged the significance of Haaland’s appointment as an Indigenous federal official managing lands that were once cared for by their ancestors.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said the Interior decision to pursue a mineral withdrawal is an “answer to prayers.”
“Last week’s announcement confirms the deep reverence we hold for this place,” Vallo said.
Buffer zone protest
Even as officials gathered near the park’s visitor center to celebrate the Interior Department proposal, a small group of Navajo allottees protested outside park boundaries.
The group placed signs featuring such phrases as “there is already Chaco protection in place” and “buffer zone violates allottee rights,” along the bumpy road to the park.
Interior data shows the 10-mile buffer has more than 50 leased allotments that generate $6.2 million each year in oil and gas royalties for about 5,500 Navajo residents.
Jessie Valdez is a Navajo allottee from Nageezi, about 40 miles from the park. She said she is “frustrated” by Interior’s plans and feels that some allottees are being excluded from a decision “that could really affect our livelihoods.”
“That’s our only source of income,” Valdez said. “It’s our land and they should hear our voice.”
Land surrounding Chacoan-Puebloan sites is a checkerboard of different owners and managers.
The Biden administration’s proposal would not affect existing leases, individual tribal allotments, or minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities.
But residents such as Valdez said a federal ban would deter any regional oil and gas production that supports allottees with monthly royalty checks.
The Navajo Nation Council passed a resolution in 2020 supporting a 5-mile buffer zone instead of the 10-mile radius accepted by Interior and Congressional bills.
Still, other Indigenous leaders said the need for careful land management extends beyond a clear boundary line drawn around major Chacoan sites.
Navajo allottee Daniel Tso was also the lone Navajo councilor at Monday’s event.
The Health, Education and Human Services committee chair has long advocated for safeguards for the greater Chaco landscape, including the far eastern portions of the reservation that he represents.
Tso warned that unchecked oil and gas activity could pollute natural resources and cause health problems for local communities.
“(Navajo people) have great ties to the land,” Tso said. “Yes, we want the landscape protected. We want better air quality for the area. We want to protect the water.”
U.S. lawmakers from the Natural Resources Committee met with Navajo allottees when Haaland was a member of the House.
Interior Department Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland has also met with the residents to learn about their Chaco concerns.
Haaland referenced those meetings and said she would continue to “make sure all voices are heard.”
The Bureau of Land Management will initiate a 60-day public comment period once the proposed withdrawal is published in the federal register.
The agency has also said it will have formal consultation with tribes on the proposal.
“This process didn’t just happen overnight,” Haaland said. “These conversations have been going on for decades. … I feel very strongly that the 10-mile buffer zone does not infringe on any (allotee’s) land.”
Permanent protection bills
A patchwork of regulations is currently in place to govern oil and gas leasing around Chaco.
The New Mexico State Land Office has a moratorium on new oil and gas activity in a 12-mile buffer of state trust lands around the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A 2020 congressional appropriations bill paused new leasing on federal lands for a year.
For several years, New Mexico’s congressional delegation has advanced legislation to permanently ban regional drilling in the federal buffer zone.
U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, whose district includes Chaco, is a sponsor of the House bill that would make the mineral withdrawal permanent.
“For way too long … the federal government has prioritized natural resource extraction over protecting our environment, over protecting our sacred sites,” the Democrat said.
Interior will also begin a broader assessment of the greater Chaco landscape in addition to the proposed mineral withdrawal.
The effort, which Haaland has dubbed “Honoring Chaco,” will inform how the government “manages this landscape for the benefit of all.”
Pueblo leaders said that the initiative marks a shift in how Indigenous voices are represented in federal decisions about land and water.
“Chaco Canyon is a vital part of who we are as Pueblo people,” said Martin Kowemy, the Laguna Pueblo governor. “Secretary Haaland, welcome home.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.