August 4, 2022

New report urges protection of cultural heritage sites like Chaco, Mesa Verde from oil and gas

Hannah Grover

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park is pictured in March 2022.

A new report released this week by Archaeology Southwest and The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks calls for increased protection of cultural resources like Chaco Culture National Historical Park from oil and gas development.

“To honor and protect our diverse and shared heritage, America’s national parks and monuments must be preserved and protected to the maximum extent possible. But the presence of oil and gas development on their doorstep is a stark threat to their long-term protection,” the report states.

Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, said the report is intended to give President Joe Biden’s administration input about management of sites. The groups chose five locations to focus on. In addition to Chaco, the report outlines how extraction is impacting Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Dinosaur National Monument and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Of the four locations, Reed said Chaco is the only one that has a buffer zone around it preventing new leasing from occurring in close proximity to the park.

Three of the five sites—Chaco, Mesa Verde and Hovenweep—are sacred ancestral sites for the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico and Reed said the Pueblo people may also have links to the Dinosaur National Monument area, which includes sites linked to the Fremont people and their descendants.

According to the report, there are 140 orphaned well sites within 30 miles of Hovenweep National Monument, which is located straddling the Utah and Colorado border in the Four Corners region. Hovenweep is known for the huge towers built by the ancestral Puebloans and is sacred to the Pueblo people who live in the Rio Grande valley as well as the Navajo, Ute, Hopi, Zuni, Piute and other Indigenous groups.

Only two percent of the land surrounding Hovenweep has been surveyed for cultural resources.

Reed described Hovenweep as islands of areas with protected status in what has been a very active oil field.

Not far to the east of Hovenweep lies another ancestral Puebloan site that has received national monument status—Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. It sits partially on top of a field where carbon dioxide is extracted and sent down to places like the Permian for enhanced oil recovery.

Reed said if they’d chosen more than five locations to include in the report, Canyons of the Ancients would probably have been included.

Farther to the east lies Mesa Verde National Park, famous for the ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. The report states that within the last decade the U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced plans to possibly lease more than 10,000 acres of public lands near the park for oil and gas development. In 2015, a BLM management plan looked at 1,000 new wells being drilled in the area surrounding the park.

“Our national parks are being adversely affected by ongoing oil and gas leasing and drilling on adjacent lands. The Bureau of Land Management has allowed the industry to lease land right up to the doorstep of many park boundaries, threatening priceless heritage, wildlife, and our public lands,” Michael Murray, Chair of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said in a press release. “The Biden administration must follow through in its promise to reform the federal oil and gas leasing system now so these lands have the protection they need.” 

While Chaco has the advantage of a buffer zone, 92 percent of public land surrounding it has already been leased for oil and gas and more than 37,000 wells have been drilled in the area.

Reed said he is encouraged by the public support expressed for protecting sites like Chaco and that the Biden administration seems to be thinking about oil and gas extraction differently, including moving away from policies his predecessor’s administration put in place.

He highlighted that more than 100,000 people submitted comments in opposition to oil and gas development near Chaco.

The BLM Farmington Field Office recently wrapped up a resource management plan, though that has since been paused and not implemented. The comments Reed referenced were connected to that plan.

“These places are special,” Reed said. “They protect resources that we don’t find in other areas and they deserve a much greater level of protection.”

The report calls for ending oil and gas leasing near national parks and monuments as well as establishing protective designations around them other than the BLM’s current multiple-use mandate. That could involve designating places outside of park and monument boundaries as areas of critical environmental concern.

Additionally, the report calls for increased consultation with Native American tribes that are affiliated with the national parks and monuments and prioritizing public lands around parks and monuments for restoration.

“It is not sufficient to just protect cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, badlands at Theodore Roosevelt, towers at Hovenweep, or great houses at Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” the report concludes. “We must instead recognize that those features are integral components of much broader cultural landscapes that extend well beyond the artificial boundaries of national parks and monuments. And we must do our utmost to safeguard these broader landscapes, which harbor the sacred spaces of the many Indigenous peoples to whom this land represents the past and the present.”