This is the second installment of the Center for Western Priorities’ “Postcards from the West” blog series, featuring place-based about public lands in the West.
Leases to drill near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon — the epicenter of one of the great ancient civilizations of the Southwest —narrowly avoided being auctioned off to oil and gas companies when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke postponed an auction scheduled for this week. Despite this momentary reprieve, it’s not clear how long these lands will be safe from drilling. If anything, the rush to drill lands around Chaco Canyon exposes the true cost of the Trump administration’s quest for “energy dominance.”
Chaco Canyon is a National Historical Park, International Dark Sky Park, and one of only 23 designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States. In the canyon — at the convergence of a vast network of ancient roads — are the ruins and remnants of a large, 1,200-year-old city. Carefully constructed over a period of 400 years, these great stone houses are feats of engineering that once contained goods, such as seashells and macaws, from as far away as the Pacific Ocean.
“Chaco remains one of the most enigmatic sites in American archaeology,” writes author Craig Childs in his book, House of Rain.
Mysteries linger, but what is known is that Chaco Canyon was a meeting point of ancient trade, politics, and sophisticated celestial knowledge. To local tribes and pueblos, this is an important living landscape. “This is homeland… This is where our roots are, where our umbilical cord is attached to the earth,” said Daniel Tso, community leader, activist, and member of the Navajo Nation.
What lies within Chaco Culture National Historical Park and its handful of satellite UNESCO “outliers” is really just a small fraction of the entire story, says Paul Reed of Archaeology Southwest. “As we go out in the several million acres that surround Chaco there are many, many archaeological sites. In fact the site count is probably 5 or 6 times what we see in the park itself. And there are many stories that tribal folks have that connect them to that landscape,” he said, in a conversation with the Center for Western Priorities’ Go West, Young Podcast.
Tso agrees that the region, known as “Greater Chaco,” is more than individual sites: “It’s the whole space, the landscape, that’s sacred.”
For decades this part of the Four Corners has been prioritized for oil and gas development. Unironically called the “Energy Sacrifice Zone” by the Nixon administration in the late 1960’s, 91% of available public lands in northwestern New Mexico are already leased for drilling. This includes “split estate” rights to drill beneath tribal allotments — one of the many overlapping land ownerships in this particularly chaotic chunk of Western checkerboard.
Until 2013, the pocket of land near “Downtown Chaco” was relatively untouched compared to the rest of the region. That changed when improvements in fracking technology boosted interest in the San Juan Basin’s Mancos Shale and Gallup Formations.
“I’ve been going out there since the 1980s and I’ve just been appalled to see how quickly it’s accelerated,” said Ernie Atencio, anthropologist with the National Parks Conservation Association.
Today, well pads are visible from sacred sites, and lasting impacts have already been felt by the nearby, predominantly-Navajo, communities of Counselor, Torreon, Ojo Encino, and Nageezi. In the summer of 2016, a WPX Energy oil production site caught on fire just 150 feet from someone’s home.
“Oil and gas extraction in my community has caused a host of problems — from air pollution to truck traffic damaging our roads,” said activist Kendra Pinto in her testimony to Congress in defense of the Obama-era BLM methane waste rule. The rule, currently under attack by the Trump administration, reduces oil and gas emissions and increased royalty rates received by tribal allottees.
“We are concerned about our health,” said Pinto, who lives in what’s known as the methane hotspot. “My mom wakes up with a headache every morning.”
In response to these concerns, the Navajo Nation and All Pueblo Council of Governors united in calling for the Bureau of Land Management to impose a moratorium on all future oil and gas permitting in Greater Chaco. They asked that all leasing be paused until a 2003 Bureau of Land Management Resource Management Plan — written before the discovery of horizontal fracking technology — could be amended. Members of the New Mexico congressional delegation echoed this stance, writing a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. The local BLM office agreed to postpone leasing within a ten mile buffer around the park until communities were consulted, but continued to proceed with other leases.
Last January, the BLM auctioned off 843 acres within 18 miles of Chaco Canyon. And up until last week, 4,500 more acres of Greater Chaco were scheduled for auction on March 8th.
In a surprise twist last week, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke — a cheerleader of President Trump’s quest for “energy dominance” — announced his intention to “defer” Thursday’s lease sale, citing the need for cultural consultation. This step is at odds with Secretary Zinke’s track record of implementing industry priorities and expediting leasing processes, regardless of the cost.
The rush to schedule the now-canceled lease sale for March 8th was attributed to “an order by Department of Interior directing BLM offices to hasten the turnaround time on environmental reviews,” a pattern that blatantly disregarded united and persistent outcry from local communities and tribes.
Of course deferring Thursday’s lease sale was the right decision, but the lease sale should never have been scheduled in the first place. The administration came dangerously close to endangering thousand-year-old cultural sites — despite ongoing public protest and a planning process that failed to address the concerns of local communities. After one year of attacks on national monuments and ever-expanding lease sales, the true cost of “energy dominance” is increasingly clear.
“Our history book is the physical landscape. Every time development continues on that landscape, it is much like losing pages and chapters of that history book. You cannot repair the landscape and put it back to what it once was.“
— Theresa Pasqual, former historic preservation director for the Acoma Pueblo.