Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Native American leaders and archaeologists are pointing to a recent survey of an area around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico that is considered sacred by some Southwest tribes, saying there are thousands of sites outside the park's boundaries that deserve protection.
They released some details from the summer pilot project during an online presentation Monday, saying more work needs to be done as there are still aspects of early Chaco culture and its connections to modern pueblo communities that need to be discovered and preserved. They fear oil and gas development is encroaching on the park and the unprotected sites.
"We all drive cars; we all need oil and gas. We don't need oil and gas near special places," said Paul Reed, a Chaco scholar with Archaeology Southwest, an Arizona-based nonprofit that has been working with tribes to survey the area.
"There are many many places on this landscape that merit additional protection, and we are convinced that this is something that the agencies need to pay attention to," Reed said of the group's latest work.
A public comment period wrapped up Friday as federal land managers are considering revisions to a plan that would govern oil and gas drilling and other development in the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico. Federal officials say they have received more than 14,000 comments.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, was among those who submitted letters. She and others have complained that an environmental review of the proposed management plan does not adequately address the potential impacts of increased development on air quality or cultural resources.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Chaco park has served as a rallying cry for environmentalists and pueblos that have been trying to stop drilling in the basin.
The Bureau of Land Management for years has been deferring leases within 10 miles of the park and advocates are pushing for that to become permanent. Legislation pending in Congress would establish a buffer by not allowing any development on federal land holdings within the area. However, there's still some disagreement over how encompassing the buffer should be.
Alternatives being considered by the federal government cover thousands of square miles of federal land. Most of the area around the park includes property belonging to the Navajo Nation and allotments owned by individual Navajos.
Members of New Mexico's all-Democrat congressional delegation, the Navajo Nation Council, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and others all have asked for the federal government to suspend the planning process, saying the coronavirus pandemic has prevented any kind of meaningful consultation with tribes.
Interior Department spokesman Conner Swanson said the agency will review and consider the comments that have been submitted, but he did not say how long it could be before a decision is made.
As for the archaeological work done this summer, Reed's team identified roughly 4,200 sites in a nearly 1,100 square-mile area outside the park. He said some of the clusters include sites that range in age from 1,000 to 5,000 years old.
According to the researchers, less than 20 percent of the buffer area has been surveyed so the actual number of sites is undoubtedly higher.
"These findings affirm our assertion that the 10-mile zone of protection is not arbitrary," an executive summary of the study stated. "The 10-mile zone contains irreplaceable ancient and historic sites and communities that merit greater protection than BLM and BIA policy and regulations currently provide."
The researchers suggested one option would be to limit leasing to areas where cultural and historic sites do not occur in high frequencies and densities and where modern Navajo families are not living. But to do that, they said the federal government needs to allow for more time to conduct an ethnographic study of the area.