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Pueblo Bonito, the most important site in Chaco Canyon, dates from AD 850 to AD 1150. (photo by John Fowler via Flickr)

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After years of urgent calls for protection by Indigenous activists, President Biden says he will restrict fossil fuel drilling around Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico. The encompassing 30,000-acre national park, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, is home to some of the oldest and most culturally significant intact Native ruins in the United States.

Biden proposed the 20-year ban on new federal oil and gas leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park today, during the Tribal Nations Summit at the White House. Leaders from more than 570 tribes attended the annual event, organized during Native American Heritage Month; the summit had not been held for four years under the Trump administration. The Chaco Canyon plan is part of a wider set of measures designed to safeguard Native lands and communities, including an executive order to “address the epidemic of missing or murdered Indigenous peoples.”

“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,” said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who is enacting the plan, in a press release. “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.” Haaland, a New Mexico local and former environmental activist, is the US’s first Indigenous cabinet secretary.

Between the ninth and 13th centuries CE, Chaco Canyon was a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture. Its 15 Great Houses, massive stone structures with hundreds of rooms often oriented to the solar, lunar, and cardinal directions, are “the largest, best-preserved, and most complex prehistoric architectural structures in North America,” according to the National Park Service. Excavations in the ruins have unearthed more than 1.5 million artifacts, including pottery, beads, and inlaid turquoise pieces. Concerns over the looting of priceless objects in Greater Chaco inspired President Theodore Roosevelt’s landmark Antiquities Act of 1906.

In the last decade, Pueblos and other tribes in New Mexico and Arizona as well as environmentalists have voiced concerns over oil and gas developments in the region, pointing to air and water pollution and encroachment on sacred and cultural sites. The noise and light brought on by drilling projects also threaten the park’s natural nighttime darkness, which makes it one of the nation’s principal stargazing locations.

In the 1970s, the Nixon administration dubbed the Four Corners region, which includes Greater Chaco, an “energy sacrifice zone,” allowing the fossil fuel industry to forge ahead with damaging extractive projects. There are now over 40,000 oil and gas wells in the area outside the park boundaries.

Congress had previously passed short-term drilling bans around the park, but a long-term policy to block drilling at its borders has never before been implemented, the New York Times reports. When President Biden took office in January, the Pueblo Action Alliance urged his administration to address “the legacy of extractive colonialism in New Mexico.”

“When we say ‘ban federal fossil fuel leasing,’ we actually mean building back from the harm and violence inflicted on the land and on the people,” said Alliance Director Julia Fay Bernal in a statement. “We must give the land and water a chance to regenerate from oil and gas, coal, and uranium waste. We demand a just transition to a cleaner energy economy that puts the land and the people over capitalism.”

This summer, Native activists criticized Biden’s approval of a $9 billion pipeline expansion that would transport hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil through tribal lands in Minnesota.

The 20-year moratorium announced today does not apply to Native land allotments or minerals within the area owned by private, state, and tribal entities. According to a White House report on the summit, the proposed measure will not impose restrictions on other developments, including roads, water lines, transmission lines, and buildings.

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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