Last month, Indigenous and environmental activists won a crucial court victory against the Bureau of Land Management after tirelessly waging a years-long fight for the preservation of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.The struggle is still not over.
Chaco Canyon and its surrounding area, the Greater Chaco Landscape, are of great importance for their archeological and natural features, and hold cultural and historical importance to the Navajo Nation and Pueblo Indian tribes of the region. Currently, it is under immense pressure from oil and gas development that wants to loot these Indigenous ancestral lands.
In May, the 10th District U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the BLM has been illegally approving oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco area. In 2015, four environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the BLM to stop fracking in the region.
The court ruling is part of a succession of important developments in the efforts to protect Chaco Canyon from environmental degradation and the destruction of Indigenous cultural sites. In April, grassroots efforts pressured the state Land Commissioner, Stephanie Garcia Richard, to sign an executive order enacting a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on state trust lands in the Chaco area.
However, in total defiance of the Court of Appeals ruling, the BLM continues to issue permits for drilling on federal lands.The agency recently issued permits for 40 new wells and 22 miles of pipeline in the Crow Mesa Wildlife Area, 30 miles from Chaco Canyon.
Despite the site being protected by its national park status, most of the land surrounding it has been open to drilling and fracking. Under the Trump administration, significant rollbacks on environmental protections have renewed the aggressive push for drilling and the leasing of public lands.
Former Secretary of the Interior under Trump, Ryan Zinke, did not consult with Indigenous leaders about how to conduct a survey of cultural sites in Chaco. Currently, the strategy for preserving the fragile Chacoan natural and cultural resources is the “identify and avoid” model, which at best mitigates permanent and irreversible damage. Real preservation would require creating large protection zones that the “identify and avoid” model falls far short of.
This ancestral Indigenous land is now a checkerboard of state, federal, private, and Indigenous land. This makes any legal accountability purposely and conveniently vague.
Even more ridiculous is that Chaco lands are “split estate,” meaning that even on Indigenous-owned land, the colonial status of Indigenous peoples is such that a private company authorized by the federal government can drill under the surface and extract anything they want.
Residents of the area never see any significant economic development despite the billions of dollars the state earns on oil and gas tax revenues. Every single one of the surrounding towns is dirt poor. Not only is the claim that big oil brings jobs and growth to the region a cynical joke, but by destroying the land and water, fracking is also destroying the ability of farmers and pastoralists to continue to survive.
The environmental devastation resulting from hydraulic and horizontal drilling is widely known, from earthquakes in Oklahoma to flammable drinking water in Pennsylvania. Fires and explosions at drilling sites in Chaco have pushed many activists to action. Activists have been able to stop the sale of federal land to the oil and gas industry three times since fracking was first proposed in 2012.
Under a capitalist state, there is never a guarantee that sacred lands will be protected because profits come before all else. Although key victories have been won, activists will continue to fight for permanent protections for Chaco Canyon.