President Joe Biden on Monday said the administration will move to prevent oil and gas development for two decades near Chaco Canyon, an area in northwestern New Mexico that’s culturally significant to the area’s Native American communities and important for biodiversity.
The plan was formally announced during the White House Tribal Nations Summit, the first of meetings that Biden has pledged to hold annually to strengthen relationships between the administration and tribal nations. It is consistent with the administration’s goal to protect 30% of U.S. land and water by the end of the decade.
Biden’s action would bar oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for 20 years.
“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, a former member of Congress from a New Mexico district that encompasses Chaco Canyon, said in a statement. “Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco.”
The area is home to a wealth of sacred sites and cultural items of importance to Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache communities.
U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) applauded the withdrawal. Heinrich wrote Haaland a letter in May asking for protections around Chaco Canyon. He intends to reintroduce legislation to create permanent protections in the area, according to a Monday news release from his office.
“Today marks the beginning of the end of short-term policies that shift every year to the long-term certainty that this unique place will be protected,” Heinrich said in the release.
All Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation —Sen. Ben Ray Luján and Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury, in addition to Heinrich—issued a joint statement supporting the move.
“President Biden’s executive order to ban leasing on federal lands around Chaco Canyon is a significant step forward in protecting this historical sacred site for generations to come,” they said.
A spokesperson for the delegation’s lone Republican, Rep. Yvette Herrell, did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.
Monday’s action represents a longer-term prohibition on development in the area after a series of moves with shorter time frames.
The federal government has patched together a combination of one-year moratoria, leasing deferrals and a requirement to complete a cultural resource studies to bar drilling over the past decade, according to Heinrich’s May letter.
In addition to its cultural significance, Chaco Canyon is an important area for wildlife, and the administration’s plan won praise from environmental groups.
The area is “a biodiversity hub” and is home to elk, bobcats, rabbits, porcupines, badgers, wild horses and more than 100 bird species, according to Environment America, an environmental advocacy group.
In a statement, Virginia Carter, a public lands campaign associate with Environment America, lauded the decision for its protection of cultural resources and wildlife. But, she added, steps should be taken to make the protections permanent.
“We can’t forget that while 20 years is a long time, it’s not forever,” she said. “We fervently hope that this action is the first step toward permanent protection for the Greater Chaco Area.”
Land co-stewardship and language preservation
The administration made other policy announcements as part of the Tribal Nations Summit, including an Interior and U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to increase tribal influence in federal lands and waters and a nonbinding agreement to promote the use of Native American languages.
The USDA and Interior program requires the departments to seek “co-stewardship” agreements with tribes to jointly manage federal lands, waters and wildlife on or near tribal areas.
The departments will also engage with tribes “at the earliest phases of planning and decision-making.”
Under the language plan, the departments of Interior, Education and Health and Human Services will identify federal statutory and regulatory barriers that hurt Native American language activities, identify research to retain or revitalize languages and strengthen tribal consultation on Native American languages.
A White House fact sheet released Monday also promoted the federal actions meant to assist Native American communities’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, including distributing vaccines and sending $32 billion in aid money through the $1.9 trillion recovery law Biden signed in March.
The White House also touted Native American representation within the administration. One in five political appointees in the Interior Department is Native American, including Haaland and the nominee to lead the National Park Service, Charles F. Sams III of Oregon.
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