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Navajo leaders seek hearing on oil and gas drilling dispute

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 1996, file photo, tourists cast their shadows on the ancient Anasazi ruins of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. Top officials with the largest Native American tribe in the United States are renewing a request for congressional leaders to hold a field hearing before deciding on federal legislation aimed at limiting oil and gas development around Chaco Culture National Historical Park. (AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Top officials with the largest Native American tribe in the United States are renewing a request for congressional leaders to hold a field hearing before deciding on federal legislation aimed at limiting oil and gas development around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The Navajo Nation has struggled for years with high poverty rates and joblessness, and the tribe’s legislative leaders say individual Navajo allottees stand to lose an important source of income if a 10-mile (16-kilometer) buffer is created around the park as proposed. They’re calling for a smaller area of federal land holdings to be made off limits to oil and gas development as a compromise to protect Navajo interests.

Navajo Council Speaker Seth Damon and other council members recently sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Republican Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy outlining their concerns about pending legislation and the need to fund a comprehensive study of cultural resources throughout the region.

They said a field hearing would allow congressional leaders to “‘hear directly from the Navajo people who face a real threat” under the current version of legislation. While the measure wouldn’t directly affect tribal or allottee land, allottees fear their parcels would be landlocked by a federal ban, making them undesirable for future development.

A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert floor.

Outside the park, archaeologists say there are discoveries still to be made.

Other tribes, environmental groups and archaeologists have been pushing to stop drilling across an expansive area of northwestern New Mexico, saying sites beyond Chaco’s boundaries need protection and that the federal government’s leasing program needs an overhaul.

The Navajo Nation passed its own legislation in 2019 recognizing the cultural, spiritual and cosmological connection that Navajos have to the Chaco region. The measure expounded on the need for protections, but it also called for respecting and working with Navajo allottees.

The fight over development in the region has spanned several presidential administrations on both sides of the political aisle. Past administrations — including the Trump and Obama administrations — put on hold leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but activists are pushing for something more permanent that won’t be upended by a future administration.

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold a cabinet position, was among the sponsors of legislation calling for greater protections during her tenure in the U.S. House. A member of Laguna Pueblo in central New Mexico, Haaland has referred to the area as a sacred place.

She’s now under growing pressure to use her administrative powers to establish a buffer around the park pending the outcome of the federal legislation.

Several New Mexico pueblos, Navajo Council Member Daniel Tso and environmental groups also have sent letters to U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, voicing their support for the Chaco legislation. The first-term Democratic congresswoman also has spoken with Navajo leaders about her position on the matter.

Leger Fernández said Wednesday she’s committed to cultural preservation. She said once those resources are lost, they’re gone forever.

“We’ve been engaged in tribal consultation throughout and will continue conversations with Navajo Nation and the pueblos, as well as the Navajo allottees to protect allottees’ rights to develop their land as they see fit,” she said.