The Biden administration took a first step Monday toward banning new oil and gas leasing in and around New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, a high-desert landscape rich in Indigenous cultural sites.
The Interior Department announced it will begin a lengthy process to consider a 20-year moratorium on new fossil fuel drilling within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
“Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked, and thrived in that high desert community,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the nation’s first Native American Cabinet secretary and an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna, said in a statement. “Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations.”
First established as a national monument in 1907 by President Theodore Roosevelt, Chaco Culture National Historical Park spans more than 30,000 acres of northwestern New Mexico and is home to some of the most spectacular and significant Ancestral Puebloan cultural sites in the U.S. The landscape is sacred to Native American tribes that for years have sought more permanent protections for the surrounding area, where oil and gas development has surged in recent decades.
The Interior Department’s process kicks off with a two-year halt on new leasing while it conducts an environmental assessment and reviews public comment. Neither the initial change nor a future 20-year ban would affect existing oil and gas leases or any mineral development on private, state or tribal lands, Interior said.
In a post to Twitter, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said the action “marks the beginning of the end of short-term policies that shift every year to the long-term certainty that #ChacoCanyon will be protected.”
“This is one of the most precious landscapes on Earth and holds deep meaning for Tribes, Pueblos, & communities in northern New Mexico,” Heinrich wrote.
Heinrich and other members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Haaland last week calling on her to use her authority to safeguard areas outside the park’s boundary.
The administration’s effort to protect the greater Chaco area comes on the heels of the United Nations climate conference, where President Joe Biden and his team promised world leaders that the U.S would lead in confronting climate change and slashing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions.
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