It’s no longer open season on Chaco Canyon and its connected landscape.
The Biden administration used the White House Tribal Nations Summit to announce the U.S. Department of the Interior will step up protections for the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The decision initiates a process that would halt new federal oil and gas leasing there for the next 20 years.
Part of future land management would mean greater consultation with area tribes — including the pueblo nations that trace their roots to the ancient people who once lived there.
This decision recognizes the sacred nature of these sites and the importance of the land to tribal nations. “Overjoyed,” was the reaction from the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
The announcement came on the first day of the tribal summit, which had not been held since 2016 and previously took place at the Department of the Interior. It’s virtual in 2021 due to the pandemic, but hosting it at the White House demonstrates the importance of Indigenous issues to President Joe Biden.
But Biden’s already on record as supporting Natives and causes that are important to tribes around the country.
The president has appointed Deb Haaland as the first Native secretary of the Interior; committed to protecting Bears Ears National Monument and expanding its boundaries; and authored a coronavirus relief plan that includes $31 billion for tribal communities.
For tribal nations, having a voice as the federal government manages public lands — places where tribes have deep roots — is a sign of respect that is long overdue. In many cases, these lands have significance not just to tribes and the United States, but to the world. Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The announcement came after result of years of work by tribal leaders and grassroots supporters.
Among advocates for this protection are most members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation.
U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján and U.S. Reps. Teresa Leger Fernández and Melanie Stansbury hailed the decision.
They also plan to reintroduce legislation to withdraw permanently federal lands around Chaco Canyon from further mineral development.
That’s a key step, because congressional action offers more lasting protection. It’s not subject to the whims of a future president.
Like any major decision, there will be opposition.
The oil and gas industry wants to continue its work in the area without a buffer.
The Navajo Nation tribal government wanted a smaller buffer zone, worried about loss of income to its tribal members.
To Pueblo people, individual Navajo tribal members, archaelogists, environmentalists and others, this policy places cultural protection first.
It delivers on Biden’s campaign promises to honor Indigenous people while also tackling the issue of climate change by limiting greenhouse gases.
The next step will be making these protections permanent, enshrined in law.