New report urges protection of cultural heritage sites like Chaco, Mesa Verde from oil and gas

A new report released this week by Archeology Southwest and The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks calls for increased protection of cultural resources like the Chaco Culture National Historical Park from oil and gas development.

“To honor and protect our diverse and shared heritage, America’s national parks and monuments must be preserved and protected to the greatest extent possible. But the presence of oil and gas development on their doorstep is a serious threat to their long-term protection,” the report said.

Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archeology Southwest, said the report is intended to give President Joe Biden’s administration insight into the management of the sites. The groups chose five locations to focus on. In addition to Chaco, the report describes the impact of mining on Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Of the four locations, Reed said Chaco is the only one that has a buffer zone around it preventing new rentals from occurring near the park.

Three of the five sites – Chaco, Mesa Verde and Hovenweep – are sacred ancestral sites for the Pueblo tribes in New Mexico and Reed said the Pueblo people may also have ties to the Dinosaur National Monument area, which includes sites related to the Fremont people and their descendants.

According to the report, there are 140 orphan well sites within a 30-mile radius of Hovenweep National Monument, which straddles the Utah-Colorado border in the Four Corners area. Hovenweep is known for the huge towers built by the ancestral Pueblos and is sacred to the Pueblo people who live in the Rio Grande Valley as well as the Navajo, Ute, Hopi, Zuni, Piute and other indigenous groups.

Only two percent of the land surrounding Hovenweep has been surveyed for cultural resources.

Reed described Hovenweep as islands of protected areas in what has been a very active oil field.

Not far east of Hovenweep is another Puebloan ancestral site that has been granted national monument status – Canyon of the Ancients National Monument. It sits partly above a field where carbon dioxide is extracted and sent to places like the Permian for enhanced oil recovery.

Reed said if they had chosen more than five locations to include in the report, Canyons of the Ancients likely would have been included.

Further east is Mesa Verde National Park, famous for the ancient Puebloan cliff dwellings. The report says that over the past decade, the United States Bureau of Land Management has announced plans to eventually lease more than 10,000 acres of public land near the park for oil and gas development. In 2015, a BLM management plan reviewed 1,000 new wells being drilled in the area surrounding the park.

“Our national parks are being impacted by ongoing oil and gas concessions and drilling on adjacent lands. The Bureau of Land Management has allowed industry to lease land right up to the gates of many park boundaries, threatening priceless heritage, wildlife and our public lands,” said Michael Murray, Chair of the Coalition for protection of US national parks. Press release. “The Biden administration must deliver on its promise to reform the federal oil and gas leasing system now so that these lands get the protection they need.”

While Chaco has the benefit of a buffer zone, 92% of the public land surrounding it has already been leased for oil and gas and over 37,000 wells have been drilled in the area.

Reed said he was encouraged by the public support expressed for the protection of sites like Chaco and that the Biden administration appears to be thinking differently about oil and gas extraction, including moving away from policies put in place by the administration of his predecessor.

He pointed out that more than 100,000 people had submitted comments opposing oil and gas development near Chaco.

The BLM Farmington Field Office recently concluded a Resource Management Plan, although this has since been put on hold and not implemented. The comments Reed referred to were related to that plan.

“These places are special,” Reed said. “They protect resources that we don’t find in other regions and they deserve a much higher level of protection.”

The report calls for an end to oil and gas leasing near national parks and monuments as well as establishing protective designations around them other than the BLM’s current multiple-use mandate. This could involve designating places outside the boundaries of parks and monuments as areas of critical environmental concern.

Additionally, the report calls for increased consultation with Native American tribes affiliated with national parks and monuments and the prioritization of public lands around parks and monuments for restoration.

“It is not enough to protect the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt, the towers of Hovenweep or the great houses of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park,” the report concludes. “Rather, we need to recognize that these features are integral parts of much larger cultural landscapes that extend well beyond the man-made boundaries of national parks and monuments. And we must do all we can to safeguard these larger landscapes, which are home to the sacred spaces of the many indigenous peoples for whom this land represents past and present.