Susan Montoya Bryan
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — An Indigenous leader from New Mexico and former U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt called on the federal government Tuesday to overhaul its oil and gas leasing program to ensure the protection of cultural resources, saying for far too long tribal expertise has been ignored to the detriment of sacred landscapes.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo and Babbitt highlighted recommendations outlined in a new report that looks at the government's leasing policies and how they have been implemented across the West over several decades. It seeks ways to better protect areas including Utah's Bears Ears National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

The recommendations are centered on how land managers can incorporate tribal expertise into decision-making to better understand what resources could be at risk before permitting and development begins. They also call for the Bureau of Land Management to take a lead role in determining which areas can be developed rather than industry nominated parcels for drilling.

Vallo and others expressed optimism Tuesday that an ongoing review of federal leasing policies by President Joe Biden's administration will come to some of the same conclusions and that changes could be on the horizon.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo was part of a virtual news conference on Nov. 16, 2020. Vallo is urging Indian Health Service to keep the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit funded. (Photo courtesy of virtual news conference)

The Democratic administration recently resumed leasing after a judge blocked its suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land. More than a dozen states had argued that the administration bypassed comment periods and other bureaucratic steps required before such delays can be undertaken and the moratorium would cost the states money and jobs.

The Biden administration is appealing the ruling and has emphasized that the pause was needed to begin addressing worries about climate change.

The battle over drilling in the West has spanned multiple presidential administrations, with federal officials long reluctant to overhaul what has been a significant sector of the U.S. economy.

Paul Reed, an archaeologist and Chaco scholar who prepared the report, said the current approach prioritizes development over preservation and that the federal government has failed to consult with tribes.

Vallo echoed those concerns. Even though tribal consultation occurs, he said federal policies and processes are not necessarily designed to incorporate the recommendations of Indigenous communities.

“Until we have some equity here and until we see that our voice and our recommendations and our knowledge is considered in decision-making, we will not have achieved the government-to-government or nation-to-nation relationship that we should all be working towards,” Vallo said.

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Acoma Pueblo and other Southwest tribes that have connections to the Chaco region have been working for years to protect a wider swath of land around the national park. Federal legislation is pending that would create a bigger buffer around the park, but there is disagreement between tribes about the size of that buffer.

Babbitt, who served during the Clinton administration, talked about visiting the Chaco area a couple years ago and spending time with tribal members and archaeologists. He said he had a revelation.

“I always thought of Chaco as just a site,” Babbitt said. “What I learned was Chaco is a culture, an extraordinary culture spread across a vast landscape that speaks to their (past inhabitants') presence on the land. It’s not just a couple of ruins, as we say.”

A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the canyon floor, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular ceremonial subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert.

Reed and other archaeologists say there's still much that has not yet been uncovered about Chaco. Unchecked oil and gas development, he said, is a threat to fragmenting landscapes like Chaco and others around the West.

According to his report, the 12 western states have more than 1.65 million archaeological, historical and traditional cultural sites in their respective management databases. He also notes that no more than 15 percent of any Western state has been surveyed, meaning there are more cultural resources out there.

Advocates are pushing for more surveys to be done, and more specifically for industry to be responsible for taking inventory of a leasing area.

With the help of federal funding, Vallo said some tribes are partnering on an extensive ethnographic study of the area that would provide data and a cultural perspective for federal land managers. The fieldwork has begun but it will likely be another year before the study is complete.

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