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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today 

CHACO CULTURE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, N.M. — A clear blue sky welcomed U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, state, federal and tribal leaders just outside the Chaco Culture National Historical Park Visitor Center on Monday. 

Tall rocks provided the backdrop with birds flying around and cawing every now and then. Further south, one could see large rock formations and the vast open area that was the rest of the park. 

The visit comes days after President Biden’s announcement at the Tribal Nations Summit that the Department of the Interior is taking steps to protect the Chaco Canyon region.

The Bureau of Land Management will initiate consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of federal lands within a 10-mile radius around the park.

New federal oil and gas leasing would be barred, not affecting existing valid leases or rights or minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities.

“It’s the beginning of something really amazing, an opportunity for so many of us to work together,” Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, said.

The canyon, located in northwestern New Mexico, is only accessible by dirt roads. It served as the center of Chacoan culture from 850 to 1250.

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In July, Assistant Secretary Bryan Newland visited the park and met with tribal leaders and Navajo allottees regarding land use in the Chaco Canyon region.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian D. Vallo said, in a news release from All Pueblo Council of Governors, “By choosing to protect this landscape from future mineral development, we will ensure that our deeply held beliefs, songs, ceremonies, and ancient traditions which emerged and are forever tied to this landscape will continue. They must continue.”

The Bureau of Land Management will soon publish a notice in the Federal Register that will begin a two-year separation of the federal lands. Additionally, the agency will initiate formal tribal consultation, conduct an environmental analysis and seek public comment, consisting of a 60-day period.

Beginning early next year, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will co-lead discussions with tribes, communities, elected officials and others. 

Secretary Interior Deb Haaland takes a photo with National Park Service employees. (Photo by Kalle Benallie)

“With these protections we’ll continue to ensure that visitors from around the world experience the wonder within these boundaries, that Pueblo and Navajo communities can continue to pray in this spiritual place and families living in this area will know the Department of Interior is consistently working to ensure that families can breathe clean air,” Haaland said.

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U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, a New Mexico Democrat, said they will be introducing legislation in December to make the Chaco Canyon permanently protected.

Some Navajo allottees are concerned about the 10-mile buffer affecting them economically. It was evident through signs seen along the route to Chaco Canyon.

A sign seen on the way to Chaco Canyon. (Photo by Kalle Benallie)

Navajo leaders are calling for a smaller area of federal land to be made off limits to development as a compromise to protect Navajo financial interests.

“We support the protection of the Chaco Canyon region due to its historical and cultural significance for our Navajo people, but we also have to consider the concerns and rights of our Navajo citizens who have allotment lands,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said on Nov. 15. “There are many factors that have to be weighed very carefully.”

Nez said the tribe is ready to work with the Biden administration to address the issues as more details become available.

Haaland said she has heard from allottees when she was a member of Congress and her assistant secretary has spoken with them.

“They have had representation at the table,” she said. “I believe very strongly that the 10-mile does not infringe on any of their land.”

Leger Fernández reiterated the buffer only affects federal public lands and not allottees or Navajo trust land.

In the coming months, an initiative called ‘Honoring Chaco’ will allow people to publicly comment.

“I encourage them to continue to make their voices heard,” Haaland said.

She is confident a lot can be accomplished within the 20-year withdrawal and there are more efforts that will take longer.

“Time’s are changing, we are in a different era right now. President Biden is working tirelessly to make sure we make this transition to clean energy,” she said.

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The Associated Press has contributed to this story 

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