Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

Sticker shock when it comes to oil and gas is one thing, but the destruction of a 1,000-year-old cultural site is an even greater shock.

It seems like a no-brainer. You have one of the most important Native American cultural sites in North America and it is under threat–wouldn’t you do everything in your power to save it? That is what numerous Pueblos and nearly 100 other conservation groups have clamored for in recent years.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The surrounding greater Chaco area consisting of roughly 8,000 square acres is currently home to Pueblo, Navajo and other families. It is also the cultural home of N.M.’s Pueblo culture. But this sacred land is, quite frankly, under attack. A whopping 91 percent of the land available in the area for energy development has been leased. As recently as 2020, the Interior Department was considering allowing another 3,000 permits for gas and oil exploration and extraction. Bills at the U.S. Congressional level supporting a safe zone failed as they moved to the Senate. But in November 2021, new Interior Department Secretary Deb Haaland announced a proposed 20-year ban on development and suggested pulling 351,000 acres of federal surface lands into a 10-mile zone around Chaco.

Looking at a map of the area, the red dots that mark oil and gas sights make it appear as if the map has chickenpox. The number of energy development sites is truly astounding when it is put into this perspective. When these sites are created, it isn’t just a singular spot. Roads, cement pads, wastewater ponds and debris fields are created. Not only is the land hurting, but the people are as well. Fracking in recent years has many concerned with health including local Diné communities. Groups like Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE) have voiced their concerns not only to the feds but to their own Navajo Nation leadership. 

Interestingly enough, the Navajo Nation opposed the initial Biden ruling that put a halt to oil and gas production and currently opposes Interior Secretary Deb Haaland’s proposed exemption of these lands from leasing for 20 years. It all comes down to the money. Some of these lands are “tribal allotments” and the Native owners (mainly Navajo) can lease their land allotments to energy companies. The Navajo Nation contends that the Interior Department bypassed previous requests for field hearings and stepped over Tribal sovereignty by enforcing a 10-mile radius ban on development. Is it really tribal sovereignty they care about or is it the money that’s at stake?

The issues with public hearings are not lost on the other side as well. Pueblo Action Alliance, in a statement provided to The Paper., also chided the Biden administration. “The public meetings for the 10-mile withdrawal, led by Bureau of Land Management personnel, continue to only be a boondoggle for the people and groups that have fought hard to be heard. Translation issues, disregard of stakeholders’ voices and the commenting protocols constantly being changed are only some of the issues we are finding in the 10-mile Withdrawal Process.”

Pueblo Action Alliance supports Secretary Haaland’s efforts and calls it “a pivotal moment for Indigenous peoples and grassroots organizations” that have worked for years to save this land. Pueblo communities and grassroots groups are scrambling to rally not only their own people but any supporters to send comments to the federal government. Bear in mind that 90 days is a short comment period for any issue, especially something as important as Chaco Canyon.

The comment period on the proposed withdrawal has been extended 30 days and will now end on May 6, 2022.

If you are looking to have your voice heard, you can still send comments via snail mail, emails and now an online comment portal.

Hard copy letters can be addressed to:

Sarah Scott, Bureau of Land Management
Farmington Field Office
6251 College Blvd., Suite A
Farmington, NM 87402

Or, the BLM has a comment portal set up at: https://eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/2016892/510 Click on the link and then click on the “Participate Now” tab on the left. Finally, written comments can be emailed to the following address BLM_NM_FM_CCNHP_Area_Withdrawal_Comments@blm.gov