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Navajo officials say a mining and drilling ban at Chaco Canyon will hurt local residents.

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Navajo officials say a mining and drilling ban at Chaco Canyon will hurt local residents.

Arlyssa D. Becenti

Arizona Republic

A few weeks before Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that she would withdraw more than 336,400 acres of public land from mining and drilling with a 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Navajo Nation lawmakers passed legislation opposing the move.

Although Haaland’s action was applauded and supported by environmentalists and tribal members from the Navajo Nation and Pueblo tribes, not everyone is happy. Among the critics are Navajo allotment holders who are worried about what this will do to their livelihood.

Navajo tribal leaders also voiced displeasure, including Speaker Crystalyne Curley and President Buu Nygren, who both released statements about the 10-mile radius buffer zone.

“The Secretary’s action undermines our sovereignty and self-determination,” said Nygren. “Despite my concerns and denunciation, the Department of Interior has moved forward, which is highly disappointing. Secretary Haaland’s decision impacts Navajo allottees but also disregards the tribe’s choice to lease lands for economic development. Ultimately, this decision jeopardizes future economic opportunities, while at the same time placing some 5,600 Navajo allottees in dire financial constraints.”

The legislation, passed in April by Navajo Nation lawmakers, rescinded the previous administration’s bill opposing H.R.2181 and S.1079, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act of 2019, and recommending the proposed buffer zone be reduced to five miles, rather than 10 miles that encompass the 336,400-acre land withdrawal.

The new bill does not support any buffer zone and opposes the intent for any withdrawal.

Haaland said the decision to create the buffer came after “significant consultation” with other tribes, and she noted that the 20-year withdrawal applies only to public lands and federal mineral holdings and does not apply to minerals owned by private, state or tribal entities.

It also does not affect valid existing leases. Production from existing wells could continue, additional wells could be drilled on existing leases, and Navajo Nation allottees can continue to lease their minerals.

But former Navajo Council Delegate Mark Freeland had reported during an April 2022 government-to-government consultation meeting that those who could be most deeply affected are those who live around Chaco Canyon, and who are the ones being ignored on this issue.

“The White House, as did Congress, stated that the rule would not apply to individual Indian allotments or to minerals within the area owned by private, state, or tribal entities,” Freeland said. “In reality, the rule would have a devastating impact because the indirect effect would make the allottees’ land primarily worthless from the standpoint of energy extraction.”

He reported that withdrawal of land affects 53 individual allotments, generating $6.2 million a year in royalties for approximately 5,462 allottees. Many Navajo families rely on this income to meet their daily needs. It is estimated that 418 unleased allotments are also associated with about 16,615 allottees, and the withdrawal could adversely affect well over 22,000 allottees.

“Collectively, leadership of the Navajo Nation is equally concerned that environmental organizations have made a point to target Chaco Culture National Historical Park for political or financial gain,” Freeland said, “without listening or taking into account the people who are from the region. Chaco Canyon is located on Navajo Nation lands.”

At the forum, he noted that the National Park Conservation Association has been one of the primary advocacy groups to launch a campaign for buffers around national parks most threatened by oil and gas production, and Chaco Canyon was on top of their list.

Freeland reemphasized that those living in the Chaco Canyon area have been ignored, and for the past six years Congress has considered multiple proposals to create a buffer zone around the historical park at the additional request of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

“Protecting Indigenous lands is important for future generations to understand our country and to respect the Pueblos’ sacred culture,” said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association after Haaland announced her decision.

“There are limits to this administrative protection, as 20 years is significant but also the equivalent of an eye blink on this timeless landscape,” Pierno said. “The National Parks Conservation Association calls on Congress to finish the job and approve legislation championed by the entire New Mexico delegation to permanently protect the region.”

Those who live around Chaco Canyon, who were born there before it became a National Historic Park, and are descendants of those who lived in the area for generations have always expressed their dismay about a buffer zone and Haaland’s stance on the issue.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a "Road to Healing" event on Jan. 20, 2023, at the Gila Crossing Community School outside Laveen.

Delora Hesuse is a Navajo allottee and has been advocating on the allotments and the challenges of what fellow allotment owners are trying to let people know. One conflict is Haaland’s position on Chaco Canyon and whether she would be able to really listen to those living in the area.

“There is a conflict with everything that is going on,” said Hesuse, adding that Haaland “never once met with us when she was a congresswoman. I say this too, as another Native woman, does she have respect for other tribes? Does she have respect for us?”

She described the elders who receive royalty payment from oil and gas and said they are grateful. This income from oil and gas is income that Navajo allottees depend on and they are living a better life because of it. She also noted she has never heard of anyone getting sick from the effects of oil and gas production.

Within the Navajo Nation, 35.8% of households have incomes below the federal poverty threshold, and about 10% live without electricity. The Chaco Canyon drilling ban would strip an energy source from the Navajo Nation, and could cost Navajos an estimated $194 million over the next two decades.

“We have all these environmentalists coming in and telling us how we should be or how we should live,” Hesuse said. “Remember, we are the first people here.”

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By MC

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