Chaco Canyon, a historic cultural ancestral Puebloan site, has stood the test of time and quite literally withstood the ultimate test of all: the Trump Administration. But there’s also a changing climate among local politics, and economic concerns stand in the way of large-scale protection of the area from gas and oil exploration.
In 2003 the Bureau of Land Management released its intent to create a Resource Management Plan of the Chaco area, analyzing the environmental impacts of industrialized fracking, which combines horizontal drilling with hydraulic fracturing. Not much came from that early plan, and as the rise of oil and gas drilling leases occurred, the BLM found itself in need of a significant review and update to the plan. In 2014 all interested parties, especially the local tribes, came to the table. The six-year-long process resulted in the Mancos-Gallup draft Resource Management Plan Amendment in February 2020. This amendment to the Resource Management Plan opened up a 210-day comment period that ended in September of 2020. By then, the Trump administration was eager to put this issue to bed and move on.
Last year the BLM was supposed to carry out listening sessions, public comment forums and meetings with stakeolders. However, many tribes and communities within the Chaco area were sitting at home quarantined and silenced for the majority of 2020. The BLM says their six “virtual” meetings were considered adequate consultation, but many disagree. Tribal entities and the public at large did not have adequate access to have their opinions heard. Furthermore, in attempting to move forward with the leases, the BLM effectively will cease to provide a cultural site assessment that is needed in regard to the information presented in the update. Aaron Sims is the attorney for the Pueblo of Acoma and has been working alongside other tribal entities. “With another expected COVID wave, I believe the September deadline has been pushed into November. At this point the feds could also make a decision on their choice of alternative management scenarios without input. Interestingly enough, this decision-making has moved from under Trump’s administration and is now being decided by the Biden administration and an Interior Department led by Deb Haaland. We argue that this process was not achieved fully and that cultural assessments via federal laws like NAGPRA [Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act] have not occurred yet.”
These are federal laws that the Interior Department is willing to sidestep to get this done quickly. Now that the administrative climate has changed, it will make for an exciting turn of events. There are positive signs in the air, like All Pueblo Council of Governors members being asked to accompany the department as they do onsite inspections. Collaborative work like this has been beneficial for both sides.
News like this is good, especially considering there have already been two pipeline breaks in the Chaco area. It is essential to note the scope of oil and gas in the area. Nearly 90 percent of open public lands for lease in the area have been permitted—nearly 500 so far. In the future BLM projects between 2,345 and 3,101 new oil and gas wells within the Greater Chaco region—including within a single mile of Chaco Park.
Amber Carrillo is the new Executive Director of the All Pueblo Governors Council, the group that works on behalf of New Mexico’s 19 pueblo tribes. “From APCG’S point of view, we have drafted a resolution supporting the Greater Chaco Area Heritage and Protection Act. We have been working closely with Congresswoman Teresa Leger Fernandez’s office. We’ve had great interactions with all our Washington delegates, with the exception of Yvette Herrell. Interestingly enough, all those offices reached out to us first to offer help. We have reached out to her office for congratulations on her seat and to let her know we are here. But we are happy to work with those willing to work alongside us.”
Biden, Haaland and Michelle Lujan Grisham are all in favor? What could derail this? Well, to be honest, all three of them could. It is one thing to have these people in place and talking up your initiatives, but the political climate in N.M. alone will be something to watch closely. The financial pressures from a COVID year brought to light the state’s reliance on oil and gas for revenue. Xochitl Torres Small lost her congressional seat trying to walk that thin line between supporting oil and gas and supporting environmental/cultural protection interests from within her district.
Michelle Lujan Grisham came out in March calling the Biden administration’s moratorium on drilling lease applications on federal land devastating to our economy. Congressional Representative Yvette Herrell took that opportunity to release a letter applauding Lujan Grisham, saying, “I am pleased you and our senators have come to see how devastating this moratorium could be to our state. As you all three know, the revenue from royalties and taxes on oil and gas industry accounts for more than one-third of our states annual budget, including 1 billion for New Mexico’s public school system.”
Who can the tribes trust if you have the governor and senators saying they support one thing and then supporting the other side? All three have been good advocates for most tribal concerns in the past. But as we all know, money talks. We will find out what it says at the end of April.
These formative moments in Secretary Haaland’s tenure will precede how topics like this in Indigenous communities will be dealt with. Let us not forget that Biden still has a country to run that has not turned the corner on renewable energy development yet and will need to pander to the oil and gas industry for the time being. This, alongside a new climate of increased tribal consultation from the president’s office, is new ground. Chaco isn’t going anywhere. It will stand longer than all of us. Protect our past, so that we may give those gifts to our future.