[Essay originally written for ANTHR 2420, “Nature-Culture: Ethnographic Approaches to Human Environment Relations” at Cornell University, taught by Professor Paul Nadasdy, December 2019.]
New Mexico’s San Juan County is known within and beyond the United States’ Four Corners region for a number of features: its scenic landscapes, cultural diversity, numerous national and state parks and monuments, and, more recently, its rampant natural resource extraction. These marking features are, evidently, not always compatible with each other, and those working in the interest of one feature often find themselves in direct opposition with another. Recently, conflict has arisen regarding the leasing of land around Chaco Culture National Historical Park (often referred to as the “Greater Chaco” region) for oil and gas drilling. The issue is complex, requiring an in-depth understanding of resource extraction, its environmental and public health impacts, and the record of land use practices in the area. Further, fully grasping the discourse framing the issue necessitates awareness of Greater Chaco’s cultural and political history, the complex patterns of land ownership within the region, and the alliances and divisions between involved parties.
Between 850 and 1250, Chaco Canyon was a thriving cultural center for Ancestral Puebloans. While it is still unclear exactly what Chaco was used or intended for, it is evident that its numerous sites and “great houses” were home to elaborate ceremonies, as well as economic and political activities. At its peak, the population of the Chaco Canyon area reached upwards of 4,000 people, as numerous sites established themselves and grew in regional importance. These sites rose up not only in Chaco Canyon proper, but also in outlying settlements in satellite villages, which were linked together by an elaborate road system. Road networks also go beyond the Greater Chaco region, evidencing extensive trade throughout the southwest and into Mesoamerica with markets for copper, ceramics, turquoise, obsidian and chocolate. Many of the architectural features of Chaco’s great houses are linked to seasonal and astronomical cycles, which Ancient Chacoan people are believed to have been closely connected to. The presence of kivas, cylindrical sunken rooms that have holes in the floor to serve as symbolic reminders of the opening into the lower Third World, where Pueblo and Navajo people believe their ancestors originated, are evidence of the spiritual importance of Chaco. The impressive buildings and structures reflect the complexity of Chacoan society that allowed the Ancestral Pueblo to dominate the area. The scale of the structures and the high levels of social organization indicated by them continue to impress architects, engineers, and historians, as they study how the Chacoan people were able to thrive even in the harsh southwestern environment.
Chaco Canyon was incorporated into the national park system in 1907, first as a National Monument and then as Chaco Culture National Historical Park (Chaco CNHP) in 1980. Other federally protected sites in the Greater Chaco area include the Aztec Ruins, which became a National Monument in 1923 and have since been expanded multiple times, and five Chaco Culture Archaeological Protection Sites, designated in 1980. “Chaco Culture,” defined as a network of archaeological sites including Chaco CNHP and the associated protected archaeological areas and sites at Aztec Ruins, was recognized as a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Site in 1987. The park has also been certified by the International Dark-Sky Association (IDA) as a Gold-tier level International Dark Sky Park, designating it as one of the best places in the world to experience natural darkness and stargaze.
Oil and gas drilling has long had a significant presence in the areas surrounding Greater Chaco: an estimated 91% of the unprotected public lands in northwest New Mexico have been leased for drilling. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has a history of prioritizing oil and gas development in the area. The Four Corners region was deemed an “Energy Sacrifice Zone” in the 1970s, allowing extreme amounts of oil, coal, gas, and uranium extraction in the area. In 2005, the Energy Policy Act gave BLM’s Farmington Field Office resources to expedite this development on public lands; the Act also exempts fracking (the use of explosives and a pressurized mixer of water, sand, and chemicals to free natural gas and oils out of rock and up a well) from the Safe Water Drinking Act. The San Juan Citizens Alliance has published a timeline of the BLM Farmington Field Office’s history of questionable practices, including acceptance of improper gifts, conflicts of interest, obstruction of investigations, breach of ethical conduct standards, and violation of public policy and federal laws.
The BLM has begun leasing land in the Greater Chaco region for oil and gas drilling, with wells constantly creeping closer to Chaco CNHP and its associated sites. 4,000 square miles of land has been opened for development in the region, and 90% of this opened land has already been leased. This is a fairly recent development: in the past, with vertical drilling practices, oil and gas drilling was not seen as possible in the Greater Chaco area. This changed when horizontal drilling, especially in combination with hydraulic fracking, arrived in the region.
Permits for drilling — including horizontal drilling — are issued by BLM officials under the 2003 Resource Management Plan for the San Juan Basin, which was written with the intention of allowing vertically drilled wells in the northeastern corner of the BLM Farmington Field Office’s jurisdiction (far from Chaco CNHP). However, when horizontal drilling arrived, companies looked southward towards Chaco Canyon at the oil-rich Mancos Shale, and started using the 2003 Plan to permit these horizontal wells instead. The Farmington Office is in the process of making a Plan amendment to acknowledge new horizontal drilling practices, but continue issuing permits while this process is still unfinished. Many have demanded that development in the Mancos Shale is suspended until the amendment process is completed. Oil and gas leasing surges forward uninterrupted, even in the face of this conflict. One dramatic example of the BLM’s sense of urgency occurred during the 2019 government shutdown, during which a number of BLM employees were authorized to continue working to process drilling leases, even as 85% of the rest of the Department of the Interior staff were given leave, forcing suspension of vital services such as Native American healthcare programs. Nonstop leasing also continues despite the incomplete status of an ethnographic study of cultural landscapes in the region by BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and despite calls for a moratorium on drilling within Greater Chaco by a number of affected groups, including the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the Navajo Nation, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG). The BLM has even continued permitting in defiance of a May 2019 court decision, in which the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the BLM violated federal environmental law in allowing horizontal fracking in the Chaco region, by disregarding the amount of water it needs (which is much greater than vertical drilling).
In April of 2019, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, which would ban drilling and fracking on federal lands within a 10 mile “buffer zone” around Chaco CNHP, was introduced by New Mexico Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. This pertains to nearly one million acres of land in the Greater Chaco region, and 316,000 acres of federally-owned mineral rights. It also protects areas around “major outliers” at places such as Kin Ya’a and Pueblo Pintado. The legislation has strong support from the Navajo Nation, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, congressional leaders such as New Mexico Representatives Haaland and Lujan, and environmental groups such as The Wilderness Society and the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. In the face of this widespread opposition, federal officials have been denying leases that fall within this 10-mile buffer zone; however, many groups including local Navajo and Pueblo tribes hope for specific language within the updated Plan that would officially prevent drilling near the park, rather than leaving it up to the “whims of one administration or another” (as articulated by Senator Heinrich). In October of 2019, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives. While the bill has headed to the Senate for consideration, many continue to argue that this is still only a small step towards worthy protections in the area, as 91 percent of eligible public lands in the region have already been leased for drilling and fracking, and as the BLM continues such leasing just outside of the contested buffer zone even as the new Resource Management Plan remains incomplete. As a temporary solution while the bill travels through Congress, U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Lujan’s proposal for a one-year moratorium on oil and gas drilling near the Chaco CNHP was passed by the House of Representatives in June of 2019; however, both federal and local actors continue to urge for more comprehensive and permanent protections.
Though strong and broadly supported, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act only prevents prospective drilling of federally-owned minerals, and does not deal with state and tribal-controlled mineral rights. However, in April 2019, an executive order was signed by New Mexico’s state Commissioner of Public Lands preventing drilling on state lands in the region, amounting to 73,000 acres of land. This is one step towards a complete buffer zone around Chaco CNHP, and, pending passage of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act, only an agreement from tribal authorities about their land parcels would be required for a complete buffer.
Chaco Canyon, and the Greater Chaco region as a whole, is culturally important to many modern indigenous communities, including those who still use the sites for ceremonies and celebrations, and the two-dozen-plus Navajo and Pueblo tribes that still hold it sacred. Pueblo Council Chairman and Isleta Pueblo Governor E. Paul Torres has said that it is difficult to convey the true importance of the Greater Chaco area and its many sites to non-Native people, because a lot of the knowledge about their importance rests in stories that are not shared with those outside of tribal communities. He has called the sites of Chaco “living sites because the spirits are still there.” Indeed, many modern-day indigenous communities refer to Chaco as a place for connection with their ancestors: Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo has said, “To me, it was the center of where the intelligence of our ancestors evolved.” Such statements affirm Basso’s argument that indigenous place-making is also a historiographical method, and that tribal communities may embrace “spatial conceptions of history” that give a place and all that it symbolizes central importance.
Beyond the boundaries of Chaco CNHP and other protected sites, there are still important Chacoan archaeological remains within the unprotected lands of the Greater Chaco cultural landscape. Mark Allison, Executive Director of New Mexico Wild, has argued that because of this, lease sales in the areas surrounding Chaco Canyon “almost always mean the loss of artifacts, history, and sacred sites.” Physical development interventions including drilling pads, rigs, pump jacks, and a growing industry road network are capable of damaging a number of sacred and cultural resources that have been left unprotected. Development has failed to work with indigenous leaders in order to conduct a comprehensive survey of Chaco’s cultural sites, instead relying on the “identify and avoid” model, which most see as an insufficient preservation strategy. Many agree that preservation that actually works would require the creation of large protection zones around cultural sites.
For non-Natives, much of the cultural-based arguments for protecting Chaco and the surrounding land are rooted in controversial concepts of “authenticity” and its preservation, where cultural objects and materials have stayed intact in their original context and allow an insight into “authentic” ancient indigenous societies that had not been eroded by the forces of modernization. Chaco’s UNESCO World Heritage Site profile, for example, states that their hope “for the property is to ensure that interventions that may occur within or adjacent to the property — including development, energy exploration, extraction, and transportation projects — do not have a negative impact on the property’s Outstanding Universal Value, authenticity and integrity,” which are the three rating criteria that UNESCO uses to designate World Heritage Sites. The concept of authenticity is problematic for Native communities, as it frames them as more “natural” than other humans, holds them to different and often unrealistic standards, and accuses them of hypocrisy when they take part in activities deemed “modern” or “unnatural.” However, the fact that Native culture plays a leading role in the mainstream conservation agenda in the Greater Chaco area is, arguably, preferable to other examples of conservation thinking that view any human presence as “impure,” which, as outlined by Spence (1999), has led to Native dispossession from areas targeted for conservation. The conservation discourse in Chaco follows the conceptions of preservation followed by those such as Catlin, which included the presence of Native communities, rather than those such as Thoreau, who generally only valued “peopleless” landscapes.
Tourists and visitors to the region often hope to experience a bit of this “authenticity,” but development in Greater Chaco also threatens the culture of ecotourism itself, which relies on notions of remoteness, seclusion, and purity. Because Chaco is a Dark Sky Park, many fear that the light pollution caused by development (including from methane flaring flames, lights at facilities, and light from transportation and other activities) will negatively impact stargazing in the park. Further, Chaco is currently only accessible by a few dirt roads, and many fear that roads added by development would harm the sense of remoteness that comes with the relative effort it presently takes to get there. It is ironic that environmental groups are using this trope of a wild landscape, untouched by industrial development, to argue for Chaco’s protection. While the concept of “untouched” wilderness posing value as an escape from society is often used in conservation and preservation discourse, it is interesting to see it applied to one of the first, largest, and most heavily populated ancient urban centers. Considering how this starts to soften the harsh dualism between wilderness and society, this may represent a step towards Cronon’s vision of allowing humans to find a “middle ground in which responsible use and non-use [of land] might attain some kind of balanced, sustainable relationship” between humans and the environment (Cronon).
Climate and environment-based arguments for the prevention of further oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region generally revolve around preventing the intensification of issues that already exist due to current development. The Four Corners region — specifically, the San Juan Basin — is home to the highest concentration of methane pollution in the US, often referred to as a “methane hotspot.” The San Juan Citizens Alliance argues that, because the arid Four Corners region is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, methane emissions linked to resource extraction should be seen as especially concerning to local populations. High levels of ground level ozone, or smog, in the Four Corners region has also been associated with pollutants that leak during oil, gas, and coal extraction operations. Other cited environmental concerns are based around clearing of land during development, including for work sites and for growth amenities such as roads, and worries about its impact on habitat, as well as the prospective onset of invasive species into newly cleared areas. Further, chemical spills due to extraction activities are very common, and spills prevent soil from supporting life for years to come. Spills, as with explosion-induced fires, are especially upsetting to the region, since its remote location means long wait times as responders come from far distances to deal with the issue.
The recent shift to horizontal drilling, and especially fracking, has raised new concerns about water use in resource extraction operations. Improper water usage is an especially pressing issue in the arid climate of the Greater Chaco region. While water is also used in vertical drilling methods, fracking uses much more. This water returns to the surface highly toxic and often untreatable after mixing with chemicals, hydrocarbons, and brine. This cumulative water use and its impacts from drilling in horizontal Mancos Shale wells is what the courts eventually found the BLM had unjustly failed to consider in the outdated Resource Management Plan, though the agency has kept issuing permits despite this ruling.
Many of the above environmental issues have local impact and are often linked with public health issues, allowing preservationists to argue that the situation in the Greater Chaco region is also an issue of environmental justice. This follows the link between the exploitation of people and the exploitation of natural resources proposed by Park and Pellow (2004). Indeed, one should consider that negative impacts of development are generally falling on Navajo communities who have little say in the usage of BLM federal lands. While extraction wells are not supposed to be placed within 660 feet of a house, oil companies are able to request waivers (which are generally granted) to come within just 300 feet of a house. Methane, because it is often linked to the release of toxic pollutants such as VOCs, is associated with cancer, respiratory diseases, and neurological damage, while ozone is linked to a number of respiratory health problems. Livestock can get sick and die from drinking out of wastewater pits that are unfenced, impacting the livelihood of local farmers and pastoralists. Residents have also cited concerns regarding other general costs of development, such as a rise in accidents from heavy truck traffic as rural roads become industrial thoroughfares. Legislation working in favor of preservation and against development have paid due attention to the fact that consequences are often felt on a local scale. The Chaco Culture Heritage Protection Act explicitly notes the need for “additional studies and protective measures to address health, safety, and environmental impacts on communities.”
At its most basic level, the arguments about drilling in Greater Chaco can be broken down into pro-preservation versus pro-development. However, a large part of why the discourse underlying the issue is so complex is due to the alliances that form these two overarching divisions, and why the groups that form these alliances are not always in complete agreement or driven by the same motivations. This follows the trends in modern land-use debates proposed by Brosius (1999), who discusses the complex web of actors and motivations involved in the campaigns against logging in the Malaysian rainforests. In Chaco, one can broadly assume that certain local community groups (such as the San Juan Citizens Alliance); indigenous tribal communities including Navajo, Pueblo, and Hopi; certain actors with the State of New Mexico; and certain actors within Congress follow a preservation agenda. In contrast, the federal government under the Trump administration; other actors with Congress and with the State; the Bureau of Land Management under the Trump administration; and the oil and gas industry generally follow a development agenda. However, these groupings are not always cleanly cut. For example, Navajo families that own allotment lands, which were granted to individual households by the United States government in 1887, have subsurface rights, which they can lease for extraction. Allotment owners can make good money from leasing, which may cause them to support development. However, reports have shown that payments for subsurface rights are unequal, with Navajo families receiving 20 times less than others when leasing. This could foster animosity on behalf of allotment families towards extraction companies, pushing them to group with other tribal community members with pro-preservation sentiments. Similarly, although the New Mexico Commissioner of Public Lands has signed an order prohibiting new oil and gas leasing on state lands near Chaco, the State of New Mexico continues to make plenty of money from fracking operations in the area. New Mexico receives 20 percent of royalties from fracking leases in the state, which provides for about a third of the state budget.
The Trump administration has employed a number of strategies in hopes of persuading the general public to support development, with promises that “energy dominance” works for the greater good of the nation. For example, the Administration has cited national security reasons as a motivation for speeding mining permits, including in sensitive areas like Chaco, claiming it would better allow for overall energy self-sufficiency. Many such as Congressman Girjalva have questioned the sincerity behind this rhetoric, saying that “this energy self-sufficiency dominance begs the question about how much we’re sending out of the country with no royalty being paid to the American taxpayer.” Similarly, many, including some residents themselves, have argued that development has the potential to bring growth and prosperity to the local communities of the Four Corners region. However, other residents argue that they have not seen significant economic development in the form of jobs or growth from the activities of oil industry in the region, instead claiming that it is actually just hurting local residents’ ability to survive (especially farmers and pastoralists, as fracking damages the land and water).
Much of the disagreement surrounding land use in Greater Chaco can be traced down to the different ways that groups in the two halves of the debate view the environment. Pro-development thinkers, especially oil and gas companies seeking leases, see the land in the Four Corners region as a complex checkerboard of federal, state, tribal, and private ownership. Many of the preservationist environmental and indigenous groups instead see the Chaco area as a sacred landscape, worthy of protection. This helps frame the debate in terms of nature (conservation and guardianship) versus culture (consumption and exploitation). Preservationists argue that developers are working within a capitalist state that values profits over all else, even when profits come at the expense of sacred and environmentally sensitive lands such as those in Greater Chaco. As Aldo Leopold, considered the “father of the United States’ wilderness system” has said: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”
The controversy regarding oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region follows a predictable model of debate over land use that has been seen time and again, both in the United States and elsewhere. On the conservation side, this model employs notions of indigeneity and makes use of romanticized images of a pure outdoors, as well as presenting locally authenticated facts about environmental and public health impact. On the development side, the model relies on western capitalist values of efficiency and progress to promote an agenda of growth. Underlying it all is a complicated web of actors and interests, which follow general patterns but are impossible to infallibly place on one side of the debate or another. Resource extraction in Greater Chaco is an ongoing issue, and everyone involved in the discourse surrounding it is sure to continue to make use of these tried methods moving forward.
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