3 reasons to protect Greater Chaco Canyon from oil and gas drilling

A view of the Chaco Canyon ruins with the sunset on the background.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico

Andrew Kearns/FLICKR CC BY 2.0

Drilling, fracking threatens significant cultural landscape

The Greater Chaco landscape, which surrounds Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Chaco Canyon), in northwest New Mexico and southwestern Colorado, is a sacred landscape important to the ongoing cultural practices of the Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo Nation and other Indigenous Tribes throughout the Southwest. 

In recent years, oil and gas companies have made relentless attempts to drill and frack the land immediately bordering Chaco Canyon. Last year, advocates to protect the Greater Chaco landscape breathed a (small) sigh of relief when the Department of the Interior announced plans to withdraw public lands in a 10-mile zone surrounding Chaco Canyon from future oil and gas leasing for the next 20 years. 

But the administration’s job isn’t done just yet. They still have to move forward with the withdrawal and keep oil and gas out of this region in order to protect this irreplaceable landscape. 

Here’s three reasons why: 

Chaco Canyon is a significant cultural and sacred site for Pueblo, Hopi, and Diné people

A raven is flying in the middle of the ruin of Casa Rinconada at the Chaco Canyon National Park in New Mexico.

Casa Rinconada is one of the "kivas" located at the Chaco National Park.

Andrew Kearns/FLICKR CC BY 2.0

The Greater Chaco landscape has been home to Indigenous people of the Southwest since time immemorial. Historians believe that people would come from far away to take part in religious rituals and political meetings. Today, large-scale ceremonial structures, known as kivas, dozens of ancient villages, roads and shrines that were built by the Ancestral Puebloan peoples between 850 and 1250 BCE, offer a glimpse into this ancient world. 

For modern-day Pueblo, Hopi and Diné (Navajo) people, Chaco Canyon is much more than a historical site. It’s a direct connection with their ancestors and a place to continue their ongoing cultural practices. And that connection doesn’t stop at the boundaries of the national park. But continued oil and gas development poses significant threats to the cultural resources left by the Ancestral Pueblo and Tribes. In fact, more than 4,000 archeological and historic sites in the proposed 10-mile protective zone have been identified from research by Archaeology Southwest -- and that number is expected to be much higher, because less than 20 percent of the protection zone has been surveyed. 

Oil and gas drilling harms public health and well-being of Tribal and local communities 

New Mexico's Northwest Region is already saturated with oil and gas operations.

The northwest quadrant of New Mexico is completely saturated with oil and gas development.

Mason Cummings/TWS

It’s no secret that living in proximity to oil and gas development threatens community health, causing greater risks of asthma, adverse pregnancy outcomes and cancers. In the Greater Chaco region, these risks are an unfortunate reality, as oil and gas drilling continues to creep closer to Navajo and local communities' doorsteps.  

Over the past few decades, the Bureau of Land Management has leased over 90 percent of public lands surrounding Chaco Canyon for drilling, and oil and gas companies have drilled more than 37,000 wells in the area and built a sprawling network of roads (15,000 miles) -- that’s five times greater than the distance from Los Angeles to New York. Allowing for more drilling in the Greater Chaco region will continue to put local communities at an even greater risk, poisoning their air, water and the region’s biodiversity. 

Local communities have had enough

Greater Chaco Canyon region, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon is considered one of the best places in the world to see stars.

Mason Cummings, TWS

More oil and gas development in the region would worsen traffic, release more toxic pollution, disrupt visitor experiences, fuel climate change and lead to more frequent oil and gas leaks. And the stakes could be even higher. In 2016, a fracking site exploded and caught on fire near the Nageezi community, about 23 miles from Chaco Canyon. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the fire burned for three days straight, and more than 50 residents had to be evacuated. 

Local communities and those similarly impacted by oil and gas development have been far from silent, calling for the protection of this culturally significant landscape. In fact, a recent public comment period for the withdrawal drew more than 160,000 public comments in support. 

In June of 2022, members of the All Pueblo Council of Governors traveled to Washington DC to urge the Biden administration to finalize protections for the sacred Chaco landscape. “My people know how special this landscape is, and how oil and gas development nearby puts all our traditions and cultures at risk,” said Randall Vicente, Governor of Acoma Pueblo in press statement following the trip. “Chaco is a sacred place for the Indigenous communities throughout the Southwest.”  

Last year, communities also rallied behind Senators Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich, and Congresswomen Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury who introduced the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act that we hope they will reintroduce this Congress to permanently protect public lands within 10 miles of Chaco Canyon from new oil and gas leasing.  

More drilling and fracking in the Greater Chaco landscape would disregard these persistent calls for conservation.

The Biden administration must move forward with the 20-year withdrawal and put the interests of the Pueblo, Navajo and other Tribes and local communities over the interests of oil and gas companies.