The Interior Department will protect the Greater Chaco Canyon region in New Mexico. Deb Haaland, Interior Secretary, announced a new order withdrawing public land for mining within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for 20 years. The withdrawal does not apply to mineral rights owned by private, state, or tribal entities. It applies to public lands only.
“Today marks an important step in fulfilling President Biden’s commitments to Indian Country by protecting Chaco Canyon, a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors have called this place home since time immemorial,” said Secretary Haaland in a statement.
“This is a victory for the Greater Chaco region, and it’s the kind of action we need more of from a BLM that considers conservation a core part of its mission,” said Sierra Club’s Lands Protection Program director Athan Manuel.
The Interior Department is conducting an assessment of the Greater Chaco Canyon’s cultural landscape. The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs co-lead discussions with tribes, communities, elected officials, and other interested parties on how the Interior Department can manage existing energy development while honoring culturally important areas.
The federal agency has a new focus on conservation measures on federal public lands. The Interior Department announced plans in May to use $161 million of funding on ecosystem restorations and public lands. The funds came from the Inflation Reduction Act. The work will focus on 21 restoration landscapes in 11 Western states, ranging from wildlife habitat restoration in the sagebrush steppe of the high desert to recreating wetland meadows.
Drilling in the Greater Chaco Region
President Biden has a mixed track record in protecting the Greater Chaco region. In 2021, Biden announced efforts to protect the region at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. However, Biden defended the Trump administration’s decision to uphold 199 drilling permits in the area in 2022. The same year, the Biden administration launched the Honoring Chaco Initiative to protect the region from drilling and fracking. In 2023, a U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the Interior Department defied the law when it approved the drilling permits. The Court ordered a stop to new drilling permits.
The Nixon administration designed the Four Corners area, which includes the Greater Chaco region, as an “energy sacrifice zone.” The invention of fracking allowed companies to drill into rock to reach oil and gas deposits. Over 91 percent of available land in the region is leased to oil and gas companies. There are thousands of oil wells in the area.
The Chaco region consists of nearly 8,000 square miles in northwestern New Mexico. The area contains archaeological and cultural sites important to indigenous groups. Some structures in the area are thousands of years old, around 850 to 1250. The Chaco Culture National Historical Park is part of the region. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the home of ancestral Puebloan civilizations. It is one of only 20 world heritage sites in the country. The region is home to 23 federally recognized tribes.
Oil and gas drilling is a significant health threat and poses a threat to historic and cultural sites like Chaco Canyon. Drilling releases pollutants, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can cause respiratory illnesses and cancer. Extracting fossil fuels in an area important to indigenous groups not only impacts sites of spiritual and cultural importance but subjects the same people to health problems.
Photo by Bill McBee on Unsplash