Wednesday, October 29, 2014
Data and facts are essential when constructing an argument. On the issue of whether (or how) oil and gas drilling should be allowed to intrude on the quiet and stillness of Chaco Canyon, facts are present in abundance.
This is one case, though, where facts matter less than something harder to measure but just as essential to the final decision on how best to manage oil and gas drilling in the region around this ancient site, home to the ancestors of both Pueblo and Navajo people and a place as important to the world as Stonehenge or the Great Wall of China.
What does matter is that in our modern world, some sites are too valuable to throw under the bus of development. What does matter is that at Chaco Canyon, visitors can gaze out from Pueblo Alto and look north upon a landscape similar to what the long-ago residents of this culture saw. What does matter is that Chaco Canyon has much to teach us. A thousand years ago, the men, women and children of Chaco Canyon loved, lived, farmed, made pots, died and eventually abandoned their homes. The walls of the great houses remain, standing through the centuries, reminding us of a people and culture whose lessons we still are struggling to absorb.
A World Heritage Site, Chaco is located in one of the most productive oil and gas basins in the United States and is increasingly being targeted for drilling. With thousands of new wells possible, thanks to technology, the booming industry is ringing the ancient walls. Some sites will be located on or near lands sacred to both the Pueblo Indians and the Navajos.
This must not be allowed to happen.
Yes, the United States and New Mexico need oil and gas. We understand, too, the necessity of growing jobs and encouraging economic activity. Some values matter more than money, and one of them is the preservation of what the ancestors left behind.
The Bureau of Land Management is currently deciding how to proceed, preparing an amendment to its 2003 resource management plan. The BLM oversees a 4.2 million-acre planning area, including federal, state and private lands and Indian reservations, spread across four counties. Within that decision area are the 1.3 million acres of surface area managed by the BLM and 1 million acres of federal mineral estate beneath lands owned or managed by others. The actual Chaco Culture National Historic Park, 34,000 acres, is protected from drilling.
However, that protection zone must be wide enough to maintain the experience at Chaco and also to protect lands sacred to Native peoples. In amending the plan, the BLM’s initial scoping period is over, and the agency is now developing ways to address the issues brought up by the public. Those include actual harm caused by drilling, water and dark sky pollution and sensitivity to cultural sites. By next summer, the BLM should have a draft environmental impact statement examining its alternatives. Then comes more public comment, another review and a final “record of decision” to finalize the amendment to the resource management plan.
As the process plays itself out, all of New Mexico — indeed the world — must weigh in to preserve the legacy that is Chaco Canyon.