Chaco Canyon at Risk: Interior Nominee Bernhardt Wants to Drill on Lands Sacred to Tribes

February 19, 2019 | 3:24 pm
Photo: Adam Markham
Adam Markham
Deputy Director of Climate and Energy

The push to open our fragile public lands to more drilling is well and truly on, and it’s clear that David Bernhardt, President Trump’s choice to become the new Secretary of the Interior, is pulling all the strings.

Throughout the government shutdown in January, former oil lobbyist Bernhardt stayed on the job as Acting Secretary, working hard to push forward plans for oil drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and ensuring that the administration’s goal of “energy dominance” through opening new areas to fossil fuel extraction remained on track.

During the shutdown, 800 employees of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) were authorized to stay at work to process oil and gas drilling leases. Meanwhile 85% of the rest of the staff at the Department of the Interior (DOI) were furloughed, cutting off Native American healthcare programs, shuttering vital climate science research, and leaving national parks like Joshua Tree and Virginia’s civil war battlefields unprotected against vandalism and looting.

Drilling threatens lands near New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon UNESCO site

What’s happening under Bernhardt’s watch in the remote Greater Chaco Area of northwestern New Mexico illustrates in microcosm why he is perhaps the worst possible choice for the job as top steward of our public lands.

Chaco Canyon and thousands of Indigenous peoples’ sacred places and archaeological sites in the surrounding Greater Chaco Region are at risk from an unprecedented drive to frack and drill for oil and gas. The recent announcement (and then hurried withdrawal) of oil and gas lease sales within the 10-mile informal buffer zone for Chaco Culture National Historical Park shows Bernhardt’s intent, and that the land nearest to the park is not safe from oil and gas drilling.

Existing drilling wells close to Chaco Canyon, and the proposed 10 mile protection zone (in blue). Map courtesy of WildEarth Guardians.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is centered on Chaco Canyon, which from around 850 C.E. to 1250 C.E. was the center of one of the most remarkable pre-Columbian cultures in the Americas. Chaco Canyon was among the first national monuments created by Theodore Roosevelt under the Antiquities Act in 1907. And in 1987, together with Aztec Ruins National Monument and five smaller “outlier” archaeological sites in the region, it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Chaco culture evolved and spread in the region and its people left thousands of pueblos, shrines, burial sites, cliff-stairs, track-ways, and ancient roads. Eventually there were more than 200 outlier communities, many connected to Chaco Canyon by roads. All modern pueblo peoples trace their ancestry to Chaco Canyon, and tribes including the Navajo and Hopi claim cultural affiliation with the ancient Puebloans and Chacoans. Most of the Chaco region today is traditionally Navajo land.

An extraordinary archaeological landscape at risk

It’s a rough drive into Chaco Canyon. On the northern access road, the last 13 miles are on a pot-holed and dusty washboard road that can become impassable when it rains. The first thing you see on your left as you turn off NM 550 towards the park is a big fracking well, but as you get closer to Chaco, the landscape is flat and expansive, the desert scrub vegetation is sparse, and grazing cattle and horses are few and far between. The nearest town to Chaco Canyon is 60 miles away and there is no visitor accommodation, merely a campground frequented by coyotes and rattlesnakes under a mesa. It’s an International Dark Sky Park and you’d be crazy not to stumble out of your tent at night into the cool, high-desert air and marvel at the jewel-box-bright stars of the Milky Way spilling though the black-velvet night sky.

Ancient Chacoans were closely connected to seasonal and astronomical cycles, and as you stand on mesa gazing at the night sky, you can’t help but be captivated by thoughts of how these ancient peoples connected with the same awesome spectacle. Today light pollution, associated with methane flaring from drilling sites that are creeping closer toward the park, is a real threat to the extraordinary dark sky views.

Chaco’s a harsh environment: Bone-chillingly cold in winter, dry and sometimes searingly hot in the summer, and with an average of not much more than 9 inches of precipitation annually. But in these forbidding surroundings a remarkable and enduring culture formed and grew. Before Chaco, ancient pueblo people created hunting camps or small villages that lasted a few years, or at most a decade or two. But in Chaco Canyon a culture developed that put down roots and created extraordinary architecture and a complex trade network.

Part of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo: Adam Markham.

There are a dozen monumental, multi-story sandstone “great houses” in Chaco Canyon, and the remains of some are in remarkably good condition. Great houses contained store-rooms, granaries, offices, accommodations, circular ceremonial rooms called Kivas, and some probably had military barracks and aviaries for keeping or breeding rare birds. The most famous is Pueblo Bonito, which probably had at least 650 rooms. The great houses seem to have been occupied by an elite class, while the vast majority of ancient Puebloans lived in much simpler buildings.

Archaeological evidence shows that the Chacoans participated in extensive trade networks involving copper, ceramics, turquoise, obsidian and chocolate throughout the Southwest and into Mesoamerica. From around 900AD, they were trading turquoise for scarlet macaws that originated in southern Mexico.

A cultural landscape under assault from oil and gas drilling

The Greater Chaco Region is now under unprecedented assault by the oil and gas industry, with the enthusiastic support of the Trump administration and Acting Interior Secretary Bernhardt. According to WildEarth Guardians, there are already more than 20,000 oil and gas wells in the region, and the drilling is quickly encroaching closer and closer to Chaco Canyon. In early February 2019, BLM announced plans to sell more leases in late March (March 28) for oil and gas extraction, quite a number of which were within a 10-mile radius of the park. Then, a few days later, BLM announced that it was withdrawing the lease sales for sites within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon.

This is a welcome development, but it is unlikely to be the last time that BLM tries to push drilling closer to the park. Archaeologist Paul Reed of the non-profit cultural resources advocacy group Archaeology Southwest says,“I think this is probably a temporary victory, and the parcels will come up again in a future lease sale…I encourage folks to contact BLM to protest the March 28 lease sale, even with the near Chaco parcels removed.” And according to the Society for American Archaeology, land parcels that are still up for lease outside the informal 10-mile buffer zone, but are within the Greater Chaco cultural landscape, also contain important Chachoan remains. The US non-profit advisory body for World Heritage, US/ICOMOS (US Committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites) has also protested the expansion of lease sales in the Chaco landscape.

Energy development on a Chaco Canyon access road. Photo: Adam Markham

Tribes and archaeologists want a drilling moratorium

Representatives of tribes, archaeologists, environmental advocates, and heritage experts are angry because planning for the new lease sales appears to have continued unimpeded during the recent government shutdown even though the Farmington Resource Management Plan and Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) have not been completed.

Oil and gas leasing in the area continues despite calls by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Navajo Nation, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) for a moratorium on drilling in the whole Greater Chaco Region, pending initiation and completion by BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of an ethnographic study of cultural landscapes in the region. The study has not been initiated and new well openings continue apace. According to the NCAI, more than 400 new fracking wells have been approved in the region since 2013, and approximately 90% of federal lands in the oil- and gas-rich San Juan Basin, of which Chaco Canyon is the geographical center, have already been leased for drilling.

For the protected ruins inside the park and associated protected areas, the primary impact of the expanded oil-shale drilling is from air, noise, and light pollution. But outside the park boundaries, the concrete drilling pads, massive rigs, pump jacks, and dense network of oil industry roads are damaging a huge sacred and cultural landscape left by the Chacoans, and about which we know very little. The burden of increased water and air pollution falls largely on Navajo communities who have little say in the leasing or management of BLM lands.

Oil and gas land grab should disqualify Bernhardt

In May 2018, Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation to ban drilling and fracking on federal lands within 10 miles of the boundaries of the Chaco Culture park. The Chaco Cultural Area Protection Act is also supported by the APCG and the Navajo Nation. New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland, the newly elected Chair of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests & Public Lands, and a tribal citizen of Laguna Pueblo, dubbed the latest drilling leases proposed (and then quickly withdrawn) by BLM a “land grab”, lamenting the lack of consultation with tribes.

David Bernhardt’s DOI is waving aside and ignoring the protests of tribes, Indigenous organizations, environmental groups, archaeologists, and New Mexico’s congressional representatives. Bernhardt, with his history of lobbying for drilling and mining interests, and his tangled thicket of conflicts of interest, seems not even slightly committed to the stewardship of public lands for the benefit of future generations, but only to the short-term benefits of the oil and gas industries. For this reason alone, he is not qualified to be confirmed as Secretary of the Interior.