September 23, 2023

Protest disrupts planned celebration of 20th anniversary of oil drilling ban near Chaco National Park

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — It should have been a homecoming of sorts for U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland after her agency spent many months holding public meetings and talking to Native American leaders about slowing the pace of the oil boom. and gas development in the San Juan Basin and protecting culturally significant sites.

But her return to Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Sunday was derailed when a group of Navajo landowners blocked the road, angry at the Biden administration’s recent decision to seal what was previously an informal 10-mile road for the next 20 years. been. ) buffer around the World Heritage.

Social media posts showed protesters chanting “Go Home!” while some held signs saying no entering assigned land.

The landowners and Navajo leaders have said that Haaland and the Biden administration ignored efforts to reach a compromise that would have created a smaller buffer to protect cultural sites while keeping intact the viability of tribal lands and private Navajo plots for future development.

Haaland gathered in Albuquerque on Sunday with tribal leaders to celebrate the withdrawal.

Haaland’s own pueblo of Laguna – about 100 miles to the south – is one of those who have fought to protect a wide swathe of land beyond the park boundaries. Haaland has called Chaco a sacred place that has deep meaning to the indigenous people, and she spoke on Sunday about the decades-long collaboration between Navajos and people from Laguna.

“This morning was not ideal,” she told reporters. “To see a road to one of our national parks or our public lands blocked off was heartbreaking because our public lands belong to all Americans.”

Haaland said women in matriarchal societies have a duty to care for their families and communities. She said she takes her responsibility seriously, both as a pueblo woman and as Secretary of the Interior.

“We can disagree on policy. But we must be united in protecting our children, our culture, our shared sacred spaces,” Haaland said, in a nod to those tribal communities who have expressed concern about the potential effects of new developments on cultural resources.

The region consists of a patchwork of different owners. While the Biden administration’s withdrawal only applies to federal land, Navajo officials and allotment owners said their interests will now be contained.

Navajo President Buu Nygren said in a statement Thursday that the weekend celebration was disappointing and disrespectful. It should have been cancelled, he said.

“The financial and economic losses affecting many Navajo families as a result of the secretary’s recent land withdrawal are nothing to celebrate,” Nygren said. “As leaders of the Navajo nation, we support the Navajo property owners who are resisting the withdrawal of these public lands.”

Navajo Nation Council president Crystalyne Curley said allotment owners have not been adequately consulted despite the federal government’s claims.

Industry groups have also supported Navajo leaders and landowners, with some claiming that Haaland has a conflict of interest when it comes to oil and gas policy decisions.

A Republican-led United States House committee announced just days after Chaco’s decision that it would investigate the secretary’s ties to an indigenous environmental group that has protested fossil fuels.

Still, a coalition of environmental groups and Native American activists campaigning for the restrictions hailed Haaland’s order as a first step in protecting cultural sites and the region from pollution and climate change. The coalition also continues to lobby for legislation that would formalize the same buffer around the park, which covers more than 490 square miles (1,269 square kilometers) of federal land.

A study published last fall by the Department of the Interior shows that the repeal would not affect existing leases and that much of the area of ​​interest to industry for future development is either already leased or out of lease. falls the limit of what would be withdrawn.

Federal officials have taken an informal hiatus from at least the last three presidential administrations when it comes to development around the Chaco Park, and supporters claim Navajos were at the table when the latest moratorium was discussed.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors, made up of many tribes who support the withdrawal, noted Sunday that it was joint talks with the Navajos that began several years ago that prompted the withdrawal efforts.

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