A few big rigs carried oilfield equipment on a winding road near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, cutting through desert badlands and sage. Mobile homes and traditional Navajo dwellings dotted the landscape, with a smattering of natural gas wells visible in the distance.
This swath of northwestern New Mexico has been at the center of a decades-long battle over oil and gas development.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined pueblo leaders Monday to reflect on her office's announcement last week that it would seek to withdraw federal land holdings within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the park’s boundary, making the area off-limits to oil and gas leasing for 20 years.
“This celebration is decades in the making,” Haaland said. “Some would even say millennia in the making.”
Haaland's action halts new leases in the area for the next two years while federal officials consider the proposed withdrawal.
While the Chaco area holds historical and cultural significance to many tribes, the Navajo Nation oversees much of the land that makes up the jurisdictional checkerboard surrounding the national park. Some belongs to individual Navajos who were allotted land by the federal government generations ago.
Navajo leaders support preserving parts of the area but have said individual allottees stand to lose an important income source if the land is made off-limits to development. They're calling for a smaller buffer of federal land around the park as a compromise to protect Navajo financial interests.
The rough road to the park was lined with brightly colored signs Monday in support of the allottees, many noting the importance of oil and gas development to their livelihoods.
“Our land, our minerals. We support oil and gas," read one sign.
Another said Haaland hasn't met with allottees.
Environmentalists, Democratic politicians and other tribes had been pressuring Haaland — the first Native American to lead a U.S. Cabinet agency — to protect a broad swath of land beyond the park that holds significance for many Indigenous people in the Southwest.
A former Democratic congresswoman from New Mexico, Haaland sponsored legislation during her U.S. House term to curb oil and gas drilling. She has called the area sacred, saying it has deep meaning for those whose ancestors once called the high desert home.
“This is a living landscape,” Haaland said Monday. “You can feel it in the sun, the clouds and the wind. It’s not difficult to imagine centuries ago children running around the open space, people moving in and out of doorways, singing in their harvest or preparing food to come — a busy, thriving community.”
A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert floor.
More discoveries are waiting to be made outside the park, archaeologists have said.
The fight over drilling beyond the park has spanned multiple presidential administrations. The Trump and Obama administrations also put on hold leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but activists want the area permanently protected.
The Biden administration and Haaland's agency have vowed to consult with tribes over the next two years as the withdrawal proposal is considered, but top Navajo leaders already have suggested they're being ignored. Noticeably absent Monday were the top elected leaders of the tribe's legislative and executive branches.
The tribe and allottees have concerns about the size of the buffer and have been calling for congressional field hearings to be held before any decisions are made.
“The Interior Department unilaterally made this withdrawal proposal without proper tribal consultation, now directly affecting our families on the Navajo Nation. The (Bureau of Land Management) now wants to initiate formal tribal consultation after the fact,” Navajo Council Delegate Mark Freeland said last week after Haaland's announcement.
Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon also said the Biden administration needs to respect tribal sovereignty and the government-to-government relationship it has with the tribe.
Federal officials said the ban on new petroleum leasing in the area will not affect existing leases or rights and would not apply to minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities. The Navajo allottees have argued it wouldn't be economical for companies to continue development just on their land.
Navajo officials also noted that Congress commissioned a cultural resource investigation of the area to be performed by experts. That work is ongoing, and they suggested the Biden administration wait until those results are compiled before initiating the 20-year withdrawal.
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