Conservationists call for restrictions on oil and gas development near archeological sites, parks and monuments in the southwestern United States
Every year, millions of visitors descend on America’s national parks to experience the vastness, natural wonders, and dark skies of these great outdoor spaces. But near many of these fossil fuel-rich landscapes loom oil rigs and gas wells that increasingly encroach on their borders.
New Tory report highlights need for broad reform to federal oil and gas lease programs, arguing that several parks and monuments risk becoming “islands in a sea of development” that threatens not only scenic vistas, but also sacred Indigenous sites, biodiversity and the health of nearby communities . It focuses on five federally owned areas in the southwestern United States that are the ancestral lands of the Hopi, Zuni, Diné and other indigenous peoples: the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the Dinosaur National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and Theodore Roosevelt National Park. .
While the lands within the designated borders are protected areas, the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) can lease plots for drilling up to those borders. At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, nearly 75% of the surrounding Little Missouri National Grasslands have been leased for oil and gas development, according to the report. And many existing leases have already been developed in the study areas, where oil and gas activity occurs as close as 20 miles from park boundaries. Natural gas flaring, nitric oxide emissions and dust threaten an ecosystem already damaged by the climate crisis.
The July report was compiled by Archeology Southwest, a Tucson, Arizona-based nonprofit that works to protect heritage places, and the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, which represents more than 2,200 employees and current, former and retired National Park Service volunteers. The All Pueblo Council of Governments (APCG), an organization representing the Pueblo nations of New Mexico and Texas, and several native tribes reviewed the 30-page document.
Paul Reed, preservation archaeologist at Archeology Southwest, says the groups produced the report in response to increased oil and gas activity over the past decade that coincides with the development of new mining technologies. mining and hydraulic fracturing. For example, BLM has announced plans over the past decade to make more than 10,000 acres of public land near Mesa Verde National Park, which protects nearly 5,000 archaeological sites, available for lease.
The authors also hope to mitigate the damage of former President Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda, which eliminated safeguards meant to ensure a well-run oil and gas business. “Our decision was really to get the public talking about it and take advantage of an administration that wants to move in the direction that we believe is best for the environment,” Reed said. “With the Biden administration, we now have a listening ear in Washington. We need to move on this. We don’t want industrial development on the doorstep of the most special places in America.
The report outlines several steps Congress can take, including closing surrounding park lands to new oil and gas leases, establishing new protective designations around those federal lands, and developing consultation protocols with tribes. Its authors are also calling for new plans to recover and restore leased plots where wells have been abandoned. More than 140 orphan wells, they say, lie within 30 miles of the Hovenweep National Monument, which protects the remains of six ancestral Puebloan villages.
Indigenous groups have long asked the US Department of the Interior to work with them to identify no-let areas in culturally significant landscapes. The APCG, for example, demanded greater protections for the Greater Chaco region, home to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Sacred spaces of the Pueblo and Navajo peoples are preserved in the New Mexico park, but many other sites, from massive stone buildings known as Great Houses to the roads of the Chacoan, lie beyond its borders. According to the Archeology Southwest report, BLM has leased nearly 92% of the land surrounding the park to oil and gas companies, which have already drilled more than 37,000 wells.
Tens of thousands of wells also dot the areas surrounding Dinosaur National Monument on the Utah-Colorado border, which protects traditional sites connected to the Fremont people. Their ancient culture is seen by today’s Zuni as material evidence of their ancestry. “Any damage to sacred sites and other cultural resources within the monument results in emotional and psychological trauma to Zuni religious leaders and their community,” the report said.
From the outset, the authors present the issue of energy development as more than an environmental threat and an issue that concerns racial equity. Under Executive Order 13983, they write, “the administration has a historic opportunity to fulfill its commitment to protect tribal ancestral lands and sacred sites.” The order — the first Biden to sign during his 2021 inauguration — calls on federal agencies to advance racial equity and support for underserved communities.
This approach reflects Archeology Southwest’s commitment to consulting with Indigenous groups, who are disproportionately impacted by resource extraction. “Over the past five to 10 years, we’ve really gone through a shift in how we want to do our work and prioritize protecting the lands that our Indigenous peoples and our Indigenous partners have deemed important,” says Reed. “We feel like their voices have gone unheard, almost loudly enough, as we steward public lands.”
A difference of opinion among Aboriginal groups on the use of some of these lands, however, complicates this work. In November 2021, the Biden administration announced plans to ban oil drilling for 20 years within a 10-mile radius of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Groups such as the APCG, which worked with Archeology Southwest to fight for these protections, celebrated the moratorium, but the Navajo Nation opposed it. this. His council instead proposed a five-mile buffer zone to protect the interests of individuals and families who own land in the area. As Grist reportedmany of these beneficiaries may lease their land to oil and gas companies and feared that their livelihoods would be affected.
Reed, who worked for the Navajo Nation’s Department of Archeology for 14 years, says he doesn’t know of any other southwestern indigenous groups or tribes that oppose the Chaco region’s planned protections. “One of the things we have been emphasizing is that protecting parcels of federal lands, taking them out of mining, would not and will not affect the rights of groups and indigenous tribes to develop the resources as they see fit,” he says.
He adds that in the case of the Chaco, misinformation led to much of the pushback. “People were directly told by who knows who exactly, that they would not be allowed to develop their land, get electricity, electricity and water if they had plots in the area. ten miles. There is some oversight by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but individuals have a number of different options for economic activity and administrative removal really wouldn’t impact that.
Archeologie Sud-Ouest calls on the Ministry of the Interior to work quickly to make its reform proposals permanent.
“Now is the time for the federal government to put more thought into protecting these places and setting aside, perhaps using buffer zones, for these areas to be considered for other parks and monuments,” said Reed. “These are areas that Americans universally want to see protected. So we don’t think there should be much controversy about it.