June 2, 2023

Lands around Chaco officially withdrawn from oil and gas leasing

Kendra Chamberlain

A sign along state highway 550 in Counselor, New Mexico. Oil and gas development has steadily ramped up in the Great Chaco area in recent years.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland officially withdrew lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from mineral leasing on Friday morning.

The withdrawal order, which has been years in the making, means that no new oil and gas leasing can occur on federal lands within 10 miles of the park for 20 years. This does not apply to Navajo allotments. 

The withdrawal has been divisive among Native communities. The Navajo Nation withdrew its support for the buffer zone earlier this year citing economic concerns. Many of the allottees who live near Chaco say that leasing their mineral rights is one of the few ways they can make money off their lands and that, even though the withdrawal does not impact their mineral rights, it would make it harder for them to lease their rights. This is due to the checkerboard land ownership in the region where allottee lands are intermixed with federal and state lands. 

Navajo Nation had previously supported a smaller buffer zone that would have withdrawn federal lands within a five mile radius of the park.

The resolution rescinding support for the buffer zone states that the Navajo allottees who rely on income from oil and gas royalties will “be pushed into greater poverty” by the buffer zone.

But while the Tribe’s official position changed to oppose the buffer, many community members continue to support it. 

The Pueblos, which trace their ancestry to Chaco Canyon, were among those pushing for the buffer zone. The All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 19 Pueblos, has called for the withdrawal of lands near Chaco from mineral leasing.

Hopi leaders have also voiced support for the buffer zone. The Hopi tribe traces its ancestry to Chaco Canyon as well. 

“Efforts to protect the Chaco landscape have been ongoing for decades, as Tribal communities

have raised concerns about the impacts that new development would have on areas of deep

cultural connection,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, said in a press release. “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.”

While the order officially removes the lands from federal mineral leasing, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has not offered any leases within the 10 mile radius of the park for oil and gas development in about a decade due to concerns from Indigenous and environmental advocates.

The withdrawal is intended to protect more than 4,700 known archaeological sites located outside of the park boundaries.

Haaland first issued a secretarial order asking the BLM to withdraw the lands around Chaco in 2021. This led to a lengthy process of collecting public comments beginning in January 2022 in which the BLM received more than 110,000 comments. The BLM anticipates the withdrawal will have minimal impacts on oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin.

“The exceptional landscape in the Greater Chaco region has profound cultural importance,”

BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning said in a press release. “Today’s announcement marks an important step in ensuring Indigenous voices help inform the management of our public lands. I am deeply appreciative of those who gave of their time to engage with us, and to the BLM team members who took great care to be as inclusive as possible in their engagement.”

Environmental advocates praised Friday’s withdrawal order as a first step in protecting the Greater Chaco landscape, which encompasses much of the Four Corners region.

“Protection of Chaco Canyon is a great first step, but protections for the Greater Chaco Region, where there are living communities of Diné relatives, wildlife, and plant life, including countless sacred sites throughout the region are just as critical and should be a priority for the Biden administration,” Robyn Jackson, executive director of Diné C.A.R.E., said in a press release. “The toll of oil and gas drilling has led to harmful community health impacts and serious climate impacts, as evidenced by the methane plume documented in the region. We cannot ignore the devastating impacts that oil and gas have on our climate, region, culture, living communities, and future generations. The Biden administration must phase out fossil fuels, clean up and remediate orphaned oil and gas wells in the region, as well as support a renewable and sustainable economy. Our Indigenous communities deserve environmental justice.”

Julia Bernal, the executive director of Pueblo Action Alliance, also described the withdrawal as a “step forward in future landscape management practices that protect culturally significant places.

“The Greater Chaco Landscape has endured generations of legacy oil and gas extraction therefore full landscape management to phase out new and existing oil and gas development is a necessary next step,” Bernal said. “The Greater Chaco coalition will continue to advocate for the end of the fossil fuel economy, and the remediation and clean up of historic oil and gas infrastructure, and the implementation of environmental justice principles for future land management practices that center frontline community voices.”

Meanwhile, New Mexico’s congressional delegation has introduced legislation that would permanently remove the lands around Chaco Canyon from future mineral leasing.

“Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco Region are a living cultural landscape with deep spiritual significance for Tribes and Pueblos,” the congressional delegation said in a statement following Friday’s announcement. “We applaud this historic step to protect Chaco’s irreplaceable resources for future generations. We remain committed to working alongside all of the Pueblos, Tribal Nations, and New Mexicans who have called for legislation that will ensure permanent protections for this landscape.”