The Treasures of Chaco Canyon Are Threatened by Drilling

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A rare circular structure at Pueblo Del Arroyo, a “great house” in Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Credit Gabriella Marks for The New York Times

Santa Fe, N.M. — In the remote high desert of northwestern New Mexico lie the threatened ruins of Chaco Canyon, arguably the most significant cultural site on public land in the United States. The canyon and the surrounding region contain the remnants of great houses, kivas, ancient roads and sacred places built a millennium ago by an indigenous people who became proficient in architecture, agriculture, astronomy and the arts. Everything we know about them comes from these ruins and the artifacts they left behind, but it appears now that much of it could be at risk from the Trump administration’s unseemly haste in allowing oil and gas drilling nearby.

In the early years of the 20th century, when archaeologists and others became alarmed by the plunder and damage to some of these accessible and fragile sites, Chaco Canyon was the chief catalyst for Congress to protect such places on federal land by authorizing the president to declare them national monuments. President Theodore Roosevelt accepted that authority by signing the Antiquities Act in 1906, and the next year he invoked it to declare Chaco one of the first national monuments deserving the protection of the United States government; it is now owned and operated by the National Park Service.

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Chtro Ketl, another of the large structures known as great houses that were built by indigenous inhabitants of Chaco Canyon. Credit Gabriella Marks for The New York Times

Unfortunately, the Park Service’s jurisdiction is limited to the canyon itself and does not extend to the vast remainder of what’s known as the Greater Chaco Region. The surrounding area is the domain of the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs whose missions, unlike that of the Park Service, do not emphasize protecting historically significant sites. Nonetheless, the two agencies agreed to defer all new drilling leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco until consultations could be completed with affected communities and tribes. Now, well before the consultations have been completed, the B.L.M. district manager says the bureau plans to lease 26 parcels of land in the area next March; while none lie within the 10-mile radius of the park, one of them is just barely outside it and others are close by.

It’s not known what other structures or artifacts lie buried beneath the desert floor of the Greater Chaco Region, nor can it be known until proper surveys are undertaken. Largely for that reason, the governors of northern New Mexico’s pueblos and the Navajo Nation, which have geographic, ancestral, historic and sacred ties to Chaco, recently called for a moratoriumon all drilling in the area until the consultations have been completed. Almost simultaneously a group of archaeologists and other scientists issued a report calling for stronger protection of Greater Chaco and its remarkable complex of other Chaco-linked sites in the four-corners region. They specifically recommended the use of new satellite and laser-imaging technologies that can locate underground structures invisible to the naked eye.

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