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Protecting Chaco Culture National Historical Park: When Culture and Congress Clash

By KimberMarie Faircloth

At the intersection of politics and culture there is usually a robust repelling force keeping the two from fully understanding one another. This force is made up of partisan policies, modern-day climate concerns, and economic issues all mingling with vestiges of history. On November 15, 2021, a long running conflict was brought to a head when a proposal for enacting a 20-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling around Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Chaco) was announced.[1] Advocates who have been working for such a ban for decades cheered while opponents grumbled. At the center of the issue is a cultural landmark with a birthdate of approximately 850 A.D., outlasting either side of the current debate.[2]

To understand the importance of such a proposal by the Biden Administration, the importance of Chaco must initially be understood. This article will briefly attempt to first explain the history and cultural significance of the historic park and then summarize the legislative build-up to the current moratorium as well as what it actually calls for. Finally, a short synopsis will be provided looking at the reasoning behind both the proponents and opponents of the drilling ban and buffer. From a birds-eye view, this is an attempt to better understand the various influences affecting policies which aim to protect the integrity of cultural heritage.

What is Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Why Does It Matter?

Chaco refers to a southwestern United States’ cultural complex containing over 4,000 archaeological sites on the Colorado plateau of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico.[3] It was designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its “monumental public and ceremonial buildings and architecture,”[4] the remarkability of which is due to the level of preservation maintained in such a climatically harsh geographic area as well as the level of craftsmanship by the creators.[5] These sites are associated with Paleo-Indian, ancestral Puebloans, Navajo, and Euro-American interactions and occupations.[6]

In 1907, Chaco became a national park after President Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act of 1906.[7] In fact, it was Chaco that initiated the enactment of such legislation due to the damage being done to it at that time which alarmed archaeologists.[8] Such an enactment granted the park federal protection in preserving Chaco’s “extensive cultural system,” which included landscaping and architecture oriented “in accordance with solar, lunar, and cardinal directions potentially to capture the various solar and lunar cycles.”[9]

If one still wonders what exactly makes Chaco so important, beyond its historical and cultural significance mentioned previously, it remains a sacred site for Native Americans to this day.[10] The descendants of those who inhabited Chaco are the modern-day Hopi, Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, and the Navajo.[11] According to President of the Navajo Nation Russell Begaye, in a 2017 press release, “We are descendants from the Chaco Canyon area. We are connected to these lands spiritually. The voices of our ancestors live in this area and any disturbance to this area is culturally and morally insensitive.”[12]

What is the 20-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling around Chaco?

To understand the moratorium that has been proposed is to understand the years of advocacy and push-back that led up to its inception. In 2018, the former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke delayed a lease proposal in an attempt to protect 4,000 acres of Chaco while requesting that more cultural research on the land take place.[13] Zinke’s efforts were made moot when the Trump Administration approved leases for drilling to take place on 2,300 oil and gas wells.[14] This action was subsequently followed by Congress enacting a moratorium for a one-year period on drilling.[15] Any further efforts by Congress to create a permanent barrier around Chaco via legislation failed, but hope was restored in the new Department of the Interior’s Secretary Deb Haaland and her position’s authority to create such a barrier granted by the 1976 Federal Land Planning and Management Act.[16]

Finally, at the White House Tribal Nations Summit of last year, President Biden and Secretary Haaland introduced the executive order that would, in theory, put into action the long sought after moratorium. The goal of the summit was to provide “an opportunity for the President and senior leaders from his administration to meet with tribal leaders and engage in Nation-to-Nation dialogue on critical issues in Indian Country.”[17] This executive order by President Biden would direct the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to begin protecting the federally owned lands within the 10-mile radius around Chaco from future oil and gas drilling.[18] The Biden Administration summarized the efforts to protect Chaco in the Summit’s Progress Report published by the White House:

“For the past decade, Pueblos and Tribes in Arizona and New Mexico have raised concerns about encroaching oil and gas development threatening sacred and cultural sites, and Congress has passed a series of actions to temporarily defer new leasing. In the coming weeks, the Department of the Interior will initiate consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of federal lands within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, protecting the area from new federal oil and gas leasing and development. The proposed withdrawal will not apply to Individual Indian Allotments or to minerals within the area owned by private, state, and Tribal entities. The action will also not impose restrictions on other developments, such as roads, water lines, transmission lines, or buildings. To support conservation of the area, the State of New Mexico Land Office has implemented a moratorium on new state mineral leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.”[19]

The proposal will be subject to a public comment period, environmental analysis, and formal tribal consultation during the first two years of the moratorium on creating new oil and gas drilling leases in the 10-mile buffer around Chaco.[20] This concern over protecting Chaco follows President Biden’s administration’s restoration and expansion of protections over other culturally important parks such as the Bears Ear National Monument and the Grand Staircase-Escalante, both of which are located in Utah.[21]

Who are the opposing teams in support of and opposing the ban?

For those in support of the moratorium, the cultural, historic, and environmental significance of preserving the park is obvious.[22] Fracking has been and continues to be a controversial method for extracting natural gas from the earth. In regards to Chaco, the main concern is that drilling could cause beyond-the-surface damage, destabilize underground structures, and potentially cause earthquakes underneath important Chaco architecture.[23]

Yet, for the opposing side, concerns of arbitrary political maneuvering and a lack of accurate tribal representation outweighs the need for such a buffer zone around Chaco.[24] In regards to the amount of land being protected in the buffer zone, Robert McEntyre, New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Association representative, questioned the “arbitrary limits on development in the region [which] will only disrupt the largest and most successful part of New Mexico’s economy.[25] Other concerns expressed by figures such as Bruce Westerman, a representative of Arizona, also focus on the economic impact of “[s]hutting down safe, reliable pipelines” and thus, “eliminating thousands of technical jobs and thwarting energy development at every turn…”[26]

Those somewhere in between supporting the proposal and opposing it question whether the ban itself will have any effect on actually protecting Chaco and if it is too late already.[27] “[I]n 2014, NASA satellites detected clouds of methane gas from thousands of leaking wells and pipelines” in the area along with approximately 30,000 inactive wells from drilling in the area that “will never be plugged and reclaimed.”[28]

Beyond just being concerned with the physical effect on Chaco, there is an equally, if not greater, alarming factor involved: lack of tribal representation and consultation.[29] The Navajo Nation ultimately withdrew their support of the proposed moratorium since it would also take away their agency to lease their lands as they see fit.[30] This is yet another move by the federal government, in a long line of moves regarding tribal lands, done without thorough consideration of tribal voices. A press release from the 24th Navajo Nation Council stated their position:

The Biden Administration bypassed previous requests to Congress for field hearings and for leaders to hear directly from our Navajo families affected in the Chaco Canyon region. The position of the Navajo National Council is for the creation of a 5-mile buffer within and around this sacred site. It is important that the federal government consider and work with our Navajo allottees to further advance development. The Administration must respect our tribal sovereignty and what the government to government relationship entails.[31]

Conclusion: is there a middle ground?

It is safe to say that no branch of government – nor person, ever – will create a law or policy that satisfies everyone. There is no political panacea. Yet, without such structures, a vital aspect of our democracy will crumble. It is a fact that Chaco Culture National Historical Park holds unparalleled cultural and historic value, not just for the United States but for global society as well. It is also true that sustaining economic opportunities for American citizens is important. Perhaps, then, the issue is not in choosing one over the other but in discerning the means by which we can achieve both ends. The means of which must include those directly involved and descending from Chaco ancestors: Tribal Nations. Voices of whom have been repeatedly ignored for centuries and could provide solutions that are able to strike a balance between economic and cultural priorities.

About the Author: KimberMarie Faircloth is a law student at Elon University School of Law and has a B.S. in Anthropology from the College of Charleston. KimberMarie interned for California Lawyers for the Arts this past summer, is currently a Staff Member for Vol. 16 of the Elon Law Review, and co-hosts Law School Crucible, a podcast for first-generation law students.

  1. Joshua Partlow & Darryl Fears, Biden proposes 20-year drilling ban around Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a sacred tribal site. The Washington Post. (Updated Nov. 15, 2021 at 2:59 p.m.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/11/15/chaco-canyon-drilling-biden/.

  2. New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, National Park Service (last updated Aug. 7, 2017). https://www.nps.gov/articles/chaco.htm.

  3. Id.
  4. “Chaco Culture,” UNESCO World Heritage Convention, https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/353/.
  5. Id.
  6. New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, National Park Service (last updated Aug. 7, 2017). https://www.nps.gov/articles/chaco.htm.
  7. Richard Moe, The Treasures of Chaco Canyon Are Threatened by Drilling, The New York Times (published Dec. 1, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/01/opinion/chaco-canyon-new-mexico-drilling.html.
  8. Id.
  9. New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, National Park Service (last updated Aug. 7, 2017). https://www.nps.gov/articles/chaco.htm.
  10. Press Release: “OPVP Protect Chaco Canyon Region Through Collaboration with all Pueblo Council of Governors,” Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation. For immediate release (Feb. 24, 2017). http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2017/Feb/OPVP%20PROTECT%20CHACO%20CANYON%20REGION%20THROUGH%20COLLABORATION%20WITH%20ALL%20PUEBLO%20COUNCIL%20OF%20GOVERNORS.pdf.
  11. New Mexico: Chaco Culture National Historical Park, National Park Service (last updated Aug. 7, 2017). https://www.nps.gov/articles/chaco.htm.
  12. Press Release: “OPVP Protect Chaco Canyon Region Through Collaboration with all Pueblo Council of Governors,” Office of the President and Vice President of the Navajo Nation. For immediate release (Feb. 24, 2017). http://www.navajo-nsn.gov/News%20Releases/OPVP/2017/Feb/OPVP%20PROTECT%20CHACO%20CANYON%20REGION%20THROUGH%20COLLABORATION%20WITH%20ALL%20PUEBLO%20COUNCIL%20OF%20GOVERNORS.pdf.
  13. Joshua Partlow & Darryl Fears, Biden proposes 20-year drilling ban around Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a sacred tribal site. The Washington Post. (Updated Nov. 15, 2021 at 2:59 p.m.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/11/15/chaco-canyon-drilling-biden/.
  14. Id.
  15. Id.
  16. Bruce Babbitt, Chaco Culture National Park is under siege, Writers on the Range (Published Sep. 27th, 2021) https://writersontherange.org/chaco-culture-national-park-is-under-siege/.
  17. The White House Tribal Nations Summit Progress Report, Nov. 15-16, 2021. Prepared by The Domestic Policy Council. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/WH-Tribal-Nations-Summit-Progress-Report.pdf
  18. Joshua Partlow & Darryl Fears, Biden proposes 20-year drilling ban around Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a sacred tribal site. The Washington Post. (Updated Nov. 15, 2021 at 2:59 p.m.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/11/15/chaco-canyon-drilling-biden/.

  19. The White House Tribal Nations Summit Progress Report, Nov. 15-16, 2021. Prepared by The Domestic Policy Council. https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/WH-Tribal-Nations-Summit-Progress-Report.pdf

  20. Coral Davenport, Biden to Bar New Drilling Around a Major Native American Cultural Site, The New York Times, (published Nov. 15, 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/15/climate/biden-bans-drilling-chaco-canyon.html
  21. Id.
  22. Bruce Babbitt, Chaco Culture National Park is under siege, Writers on the Range (Published Sep. 27th, 2021) https://writersontherange.org/chaco-culture-national-park-is-under-siege/
  23. Richard Moe, The Treasures of Chaco Canyon Are Threatened by Drilling, The New York Times (published Dec. 1, 2017). https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/01/opinion/chaco-canyon-new-mexico-drilling.html.
  24. Coral Davenport, Biden to Bar New Drilling Around a Major Native American Cultural Site, The New York Times, (published Nov. 15, 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/15/climate/biden-bans-drilling-chaco-canyon.html; “Navajo Nation Opposes Withdrawal for Development Chaco Canyon, Tribal Consultation Ignored.” The 24th Navajo Nation Council, Office of the Speaker. Press Release (Nov. 16, 2021). https://www.navajonationcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Chaco_Opposition_2021.11.16.pdf.
  25. Joshua Partlow & Darryl Fears, Biden proposes 20-year drilling ban around Chaco Culture National Historic Park, a sacred tribal site. The Washington Post. (Updated Nov. 15, 2021 at 2:59 p.m.) https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2021/11/15/chaco-canyon-drilling-biden/.
  26. Coral Davenport, Biden to Bar New Drilling Around a Major Native American Cultural Site, The New York Times, (published Nov. 15, 2021). https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/15/climate/biden-bans-drilling-chaco-canyon.html
  27. Mark Armao, In Chaco Canyon, a moratorium on oil and gas leases might be too little too late.” Grist (published Feb. 17, 2022). https://grist.org/indigenous/in-chaco-canyon-a-moratorium-on-oil-and-gas-leases-might-be-too-little-too-late/
  28. Bruce Babbitt, Chaco Culture National Park is under siege, Writers on the Range (Published Sep. 27th, 2021) https://writersontherange.org/chaco-culture-national-park-is-under-siege/
  29. “Navajo Nation Opposes Withdrawal for Development Chaco Canyon, Tribal Consultation Ignored.” The 24th Navajo Nation Council, Office of the Speaker. Press Release (Nov. 16, 2021). https://www.navajonationcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Chaco_Opposition_2021.11.16.pdf
  30. Mark Armao, In Chaco Canyon, a moratorium on oil and gas leases might be too little too late.” Grist (published Feb. 17, 2022). https://grist.org/indigenous/in-chaco-canyon-a-moratorium-on-oil-and-gas-leases-might-be-too-little-too-late/
  31. “Navajo Nation Opposes Withdrawal for Development Chaco Canyon, Tribal Consultation Ignored.” The 24th Navajo Nation Council, Office of the Speaker. Press Release (Nov. 16, 2021). https://www.navajonationcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/Chaco_Opposition_2021.11.16.pdf