Conservationists push for protection of cultural sites around Chaco park

James Fenton The Daily Times
The Daily Times

NAGEEZI — Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Tucson-based Archaeology Southwest and a Chaco scholar, led tribal members of the Acoma Historic Preservation Office and others to Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the park's outlying areas last week to raise awareness of the impacts of oil and gas development on the World Heritage site.

Since spring, Reed has taken groups of concerned people on tours of the park and surrounding areas to spotlight the changing landscape and promote the area's cultural and archeological value.

Reed and environmental groups that have sued the federal government are hoping to curb increased oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin near the park. Reed said the growing number of well pads are encroaching on the natural splendor and cultural resources in the area.

"This is not the sound of silence," Reed said atop Pierre's Ruin, one of about 200 outlying prehistoric Puebloan sites in the Chacoan landscape.

Pierre's, which Reed said was probably established around 1050, sits atop a steep mesa surrounded by a lush valley he said was perfectly suitable for growing crops below the defensive site.

Pottery sherds are scattered throughout the area. Atop Pierre's, rocks positioned around the perimeter of the mesa are evidence of a prior community's presence during the great northern migration, when splinter Puebloan communities from Chaco moved north and established settlements along the way. Those settlements include Salmon and Aztec Ruins built 900 to 1,000 years ago.

Considered "one of the top three most incredible features of Chaco," Reed said, Pierre's sits about 20 miles north of the park.

Pump jacks — along the horizon to the north, west and south, primarily — dot the horizon, which Reed said negatively impacts a site like Pierre's.

"There's this well pad (to the southwest) and one to the northwest that's thumping," Reed said while surveying the views atop Pierre's. "But this (activity) impacts the ability to connect with this landscape, whether you're a modern Pueblo person, an interested archeologist or just a member of the public. This is a serious impact."

Lawsuits over oil and gas development have driven a deeper wedge between groups that want to preserve the landscape around Chaco and the oil and gas industry that has its sights set on energy resources buried a mile underground in the Mancos shale play.

A minor victory for environmental groups arrived on December 31 of last year when the BLM said it stopped issuing new leases on 2,803 acres within a 10-mile radius around Chaco in response to a protest filed by environmental groups that demanded the agency suspend fracking on public lands near the park.

Reed said that he is working toward the goal of making the deferment permanent and expanding the zone of protection around a wide periphery of the park.

The BLM's Farmington Field Office is currently working on a draft of its amended resource management plan and accompanying environmental impact statement to address the issue, according to Donna Hummel, BLM spokeswoman. The last plan the BLM issued was in 2003. The new draft amendment will, in part, Hummel said, incorporate oil and gas technologies involved in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing that are absent from the 2003 plan.

Steve Henke, president of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, has said that the concerns over the BLM's oversight of the public land parcels in the San Juan Basin have been overblown.

"The facts are that Chaco has not and has never been threatened by ongoing oil and gas development," Henke has said.

Damian Garcia — director of the Acoma Historic Preservation Office, which is located in Acoma Pueblo, about 100 miles south of Chaco — says the threat is real.

Garcia and members of the office stood atop Pierre's Ruin with Reed to get a better sense of the industry's presence.

In 1999, the Pueblo of Acoma Tribal Council and Tribal Administration established the office to better address the increasing loss of history, culture and language of the Acoma people

"The landscape of Acoma is so similar (to Chaco's)," Garcia said. "A lot of the (oil and gas) development has not taken into consideration the protection of archeological sites like Pierre's. The viewsheds — even the effects of (noise), the effects on the night skies — a lot of archeological sites are important."

Garcia said his organization seeks to curb and ultimately stop leasing of oil and gas drilling in the area as a matter of cultural preservation and identity.

"You are taking away the essence of why the people inhabited these sites for commercial purposes," he said. "It steals the essence of this land. We Native Americans, the footprints of our ancestors are here. Not only do we pray for the earth, the sky, we pray for our ancestors to come help us. That's why sites like these are so important to us. This is something our ancestors left us. And to desecrate it with these oil wells and commercialize the area for the benefit of a few is something we're very concerned about."

In 2012, — at the urging of Garcia's office along with Laguna and Zuni pueblos, the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation and others — the state designated 400,000 acres in Western New Mexico around Mount Taylor as a "TCP," or Traditional Cultural Property. The designation gives the tribes a stronger tool for negotiating any development aimed at extracting the area's rich uranium reserves.

Garcia would like to establish the same kind of zone around Chaco park.

Acoma Pueblo Governor Fred Vallo, who stood beside Garcia at Pierre's, said there is a deep relationship between the people and the land around Chaco and ancestral sites need protections.

"Looking at a site like Chaco Canyon and Pierre's and other sites, there's a relationship here between them. "We are looking forward to collaborating together with others to protect these sites to use them as sacred sites, with all of our ancestral sites," Vallo said.

On Monday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall will tour the park with U.S. Department of the Interior Deputy Secretary Mike Connor and BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials.

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621 and Follow him @fentondt on Twitter.