Chaco Canyon deserves greater protection

April 14, 2019 GMT

A few miles north of Chaco Canyon lie the remains of an ancient outpost. It was undoubtedly an imposing and impressive place several centuries ago. Built atop a towering butte, it would have been visible for many miles. At night, great fires would have urged weary travelers onward, while sending a powerful message of warning to the unwelcome. Even now, at sunset, for example, or when the wind rises, it is an evocative and powerful place.

Yet, in the modern era, it has become a different kind of outpost. For this is where the intensive oil and gas development that has completely transformed and overtaken so much of northwestern New Mexico comes to an end — and where the landscape that is visible from Chaco Canyon (and which likely appears much as it did at 1000 CE) begins.

This is also the landscape that the archaeological community, along with leaders from all 19 of New Mexico’s pueblos and the Navajo Nation, want to set aside from future oil and gas development. It consists of federal lands within 10 miles of the national park, along with several adjoining tracts that harbor significant cultural sites. It is a modest request, when one considers that roughly 90 percent of federal lands in northwestern New Mexico already have been leased for development. In fact, the federal lands around the canyon are some of the last unleased and undeveloped lands in the entire region.

Moreover, the landscape surrounding Chaco Canyon is extraordinarily important, from a cultural standpoint, and is without question deserving of protection. Archaeologists have identified thousands of sites within the area, including villages, roads and shrines, many of which were built by Chaco inhabitants. This landscape forms the connective tissue that binds everything together — the canyon with its famed, multistory great houses and the vast network of roads and villages that fans into adjoining states. If we allow oil and gas development to occupy and fragment this landscape, then it all falls apart.

Earlier this week, New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation — Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Reps. Ben ray Luján, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small — reintroduced legislation that would protect federal lands within this area from future oil and gas development. I wholeheartedly support this bill. It is a necessary and essential first step in preserving the archaeological record of the greater Chaco landscape. I thank our delegation for its vision and commitment to this tremendous place.

But more is needed in order to spare the heart of the greater Chaco landscape from encroaching development. First, the administration must honor repeated requests from tribal leaders and withdraw lands surrounding Chaco Canyon from future oil and gas leasing. Second, the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs must finish the long-awaited joint management plan for the area. This plan must be based on a rigorous viewshed and soundscape analysis and must include significantly stronger protections for cultural resources, as well as local residents, including limiting the location and scale of development. Third, the BLM and BIA must commit to meaningful consultation with all of the affected tribes. Finally, the BLM must provide stakeholders, including the tribes, local residents, the National Park Service and the archaeological community, with a more robust role in the decision-making process for proposed development around Chaco Canyon.

On Monday, a congressional subcommittee will hold a hearing in Santa Fe to examine the impacts of oil and gas development on places like Chaco Canyon. I look forward to testifying and sharing my perspectives with Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz., Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., and the other subcommittee members. We need their leadership now more than ever.

Paul F. Reed of Taos is a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest.