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US Issues 20-Year Ban On Drilling Near Indigenous Cultural Site In New Mexico: Protects Chaco Region, Tribal Cultural Sites from Development

Secretary Haaland withdraws public lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from future leasing, mining claims

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Biden-Harris Administration Protects Chaco Region, Tribal Cultural Sites from Development

Biden-Harris Administration Protects Chaco Region, Tribal Cultural Sites from Development

Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland took action today to protect the cultural and historic resources surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park from new oil and gas leasing and mining claims. President Biden first announced efforts to protect the greater Chaco landscape at the White House Tribal Nations Summit in November 2021. A new public land order withdraws public lands within a 10-mile radius of the park for 20 years, subject to valid existing rights, and responds to decades of efforts from Tribes, elected officials, and the public to better protect the sacred and historic sites and Tribal communities currently living in northwest New Mexico.

Today’s action is informed by extensive public engagement, including significant consultation with Tribal Nations. The withdrawal applies only to public lands and federal mineral estate and does not apply to minerals owned by private, state or Tribal entities. It does not affect valid existing leases; during the 20-year withdrawal period, production from existing wells could continue, additional wells could be drilled on existing leases, and Navajo Nation allottees can continue to lease their minerals.

Official Photo of Deb Haaland, United States Interior Secretary 

“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. 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. “I value and appreciate the many Tribal leaders, elected officials, and stakeholders who have persisted in their work to conserve this special area.”

Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the surrounding desert landscape contain rich archaeological resources and irreplaceable cultural sites where Pueblo and Tribal Nations continue to honor their ancestral traditions and customs. The area continues to be home to Tribal communities today. Structures in the Chacoan landscape date back thousands of years (approximately 850 to 1250) to when the area flourished as a social and religious center for the Chacoan peoples.

In 1987, the national park was designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site whose “outstanding natural and cultural resources form the common inheritance of all mankind.” In 2022, there were more than 41,000 visitors to the park who helped boost the local economy.

The Bureau of Land Management has not issued an oil and gas lease within the 10-mile buffer for approximately 10 years, and a moratorium on new mining claims has been in place since January 2022 while the BLM undertook the assessment of the proposed withdrawal. The withdrawal of public lands will help protect the sites and living landscape from encroaching mineral development that can destroy, displace or alter the integrity of the cultural landscape.

In conducting its review, the BLM considered several alternatives, including no action, a 5-mile withdrawal, and a 10-mile withdrawal. The 10-mile withdrawal provides the greatest protection for the more than 4,700 known archaeological sites located outside of the national park. A 5-mile withdrawal would leave more than 2,800 of those sites vulnerable to impacts from mineral development.

“The exceptional landscape in the Greater Chaco region has profound cultural importance,” said BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning. “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.”

The BLM published a notice of proposed withdrawal in the Federal Register in January 2022, opening a 120-day public comment period that included 6 public meetings, including in Farmington, Nageezi and Albuquerque, New Mexico. More than 110,000 verbal and written comments were received during the public outreach and review period. The BLM then provided continued evaluation and engagement, including two in-person public meetings during a 30-day review period of the environmental assessment. In addition, the BLM invited 24 Tribal Nations to conduct government-to-government consultations on the proposal. Department leadership and the BLM also met with Navajo allotment holders several times in 2022 and 2023.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors, representing the 19 Pueblos in New Mexico, has consistently called for the withdrawal of federal lands in the Greater Chaco region that hold immense cultural significance to them. Since 2018, the New Mexico congressional delegation has introduced legislation to permanently protect federal lands around Chaco Canyon with a 10-mile buffer. The state of New Mexico halted leasing of their minerals around Chaco Canyon through a state-level moratorium in 2019.

In addition to today’s withdrawal, the Interior Department is undertaking a broader assessment of the Greater Chaco cultural landscape to ensure that public land management better reflects the sacred sites, stories, and cultural resources in the region. The BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are co-leading discussions with Tribes, communities, elected officials, and interested parties to explore ways the Department can manage existing energy development, honor sensitive areas important to Tribes, and build collaborative management frameworks toward a sustainable economic future for the region. The first phase of the Honoring Chaco Initiative included a set of 45 broader interviews, as well as planning sessions that culminated in 2.5 days of meetings with approximately 30 participants comprised of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, Tribal organizations, Tribally led non-governmental organizations and representatives of the State of New Mexico.

With this action, the Biden-Harris administration is continuing to deliver on the most ambitious land and water conservation agenda in American history. This includes efforts to elevate the use of Indigenous Knowledge and support Tribally led conservation efforts, including designating Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada.

Courtesy of US Dept of Interior

Related: by JOSH GOLDMAN for Nexus Media

The Biden administration announced a 20-year pause on oil or gas exploration on federal lands surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a 30,000 acre area spanning New Mexico and Arizona that is one of the oldest and most culturally significant ancestral sites in the country. Indigenous groups have pushed for decades to protect this land, which contains more than 4,7000 archaeological sites dating back thousands of years and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Interior Department took more than 11,0,000 comments to the rule, and consulted with 24 Indigenous groups as the administration looked to follow through on a 2021 pledge to prevent drilling in the area.

Sources (Reuters, AP, The Hill)

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