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Interior head: Chaco protections ‘millennia in the making’

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland addresses a crowd during a celebration at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico on Monday, Nov. 22, 2021. Haaland called the day momentous, referring to recent action taken by the Biden administration to begin the process of withdrawing federal land from oil and gas development within a 10-mile radius of the park's boundaries for 20 years. Some Indigenous leaders were elated with the action, saying it marks a step toward permanent protection of the area outside the park. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, N.M. – 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.

On Monday, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland joined pueblo leaders at the park to reflect on her office's announcement last week that it would seek to withdraw federal land holdings within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of its boundary, making the area off-limits to oil and gas leasing for 20 years.

The action halts new leases in the area for the next two years while federal officials consider the proposed withdrawal.

“This celebration is decades in the making,” Haaland said. “Some would even say millennia in the making.”

While the Chaco area holds significance for many Indigenous people in the Southwest, 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. Haaland told reporters later Interior officials have spoken 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.

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 for seasons 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 highest elected leaders of the tribe's legislative and executive branches.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso talked about the significant cultural ties that Navajos have to the area and cited concerns about increasing traffic, dust and other pollution that stems from oil and gas development. He called the recent executive orders a “giant step.”

“It creates a process where we have to continue to stand up for the land, stand up for the air, stand up for the water, stand up for the sacred,” he said.

Other tribal lawmakers and allottees have called 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 following Haaland's announcement.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon also has 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.

Haaland encouraged people to help inform land management going forward. She said she couldn't help but think of her grandmother's home in Mesita Village, in Laguna Pueblo, when she looked at how carefully the stones were set at Chaco to build the walls that enveloped its residents and visitors with great care and love.

“The responsibility we all have to our future generations is to take care of our American heritage and to model our care of the earth after the people who once lived among these beautiful structures,” she said.