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Interior bans drilling around New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon to protect sacred, historic sites

Brown rock wall ruins in a desert setting.
Flickr Creative Commons
Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico is a Native American site to which many tribes in the Southwest trace back their ancestry.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced on June 2 that her agency is withdrawing public lands within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park from new leasing and mining. The move protects more than 490 square miles around the park from development.

“I value and appreciate the many tribal leaders, elected officials, and stakeholders who have persisted in their work to conserve this special area,” Haaland said in a statement.

For years, tribal leaders, environmentalists and New Mexico’s congressional delegation have pushed for more protections in the greater Chaco region, where many tribes in the Southwest trace back their ancestry.

Yet more than 90% of the surrounding lands have already been leased for oil and gas drilling, said Ellen Montgomery, public lands campaign director with the advocacy group Environment New Mexico.

“We need more nature, we need more history, we need to protect the places that we haven’t destroyed,” Montgomery said. “And I firmly believe that this area is worth much more than whatever minerals may be underneath it.”

Haaland’s order will result in a few dozen wells not being drilled, according to an assessment by the Interior Department in late 2022. The order doesn’t affect existing leases or drilling on private property within the 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Notably, New Mexico is one of the nation’s top producers of oil and gas. In 2022, the state accounted for more than 13% of the oil and almost 6% of the natural gas produced in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It’s unclear whether the oil and gas industry will try to challenge the new protections handed down by the Biden administration.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

The photo included above is licensed under Flickr Creative Commons.

Copyright 2023 KUNR Public Radio. To see more, visit KUNR Public Radio.

Kaleb Roedel
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