President Joe Biden's administration has implemented a 20-year ban on leases for mineral and fuel drilling to preserve sacred tribal lands against the wishes of the Indigenous people on it, Fox News reported. The ban creates a 10-mile buffer zone around the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland implemented the ban Friday. It encompasses 336,404 acres in the northwestern part of the state that is public land but will be unusable around the sacred site.
The self-congratulations immediately followed the announcement that was years in the making. "Today marks an important step in fulfilling President Biden’s commitments to Indian Country by protecting Chaco Canyon, a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors have called this place home since time immemorial," a statement from Haaland proclaimed.
"The exceptional landscape in the Greater Chaco region has profound cultural importance," Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director Tracy Stone-Manning chimed in. "Today’s announcement marks an important step in ensuring Indigenous voices help inform the management of our public lands."
The ban is the work of Black Lives Matter and the Department of the Interior, which called for the stoppage nearly two years ago. They claimed to be concerned about drilling on land sacred to the Navajo Nation and therefore worked to outlaw it.
The only problem is that the tribe, energy producers, and local officials all supported the drilling that will now take away economic opportunities for them. A 2021 letter from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer urged Biden to consider the "devastating impact" revoking the leases would have on the members of the tribe who make their living off of it.
Local officials in San Juan County, New Mexico, similarly passed an official resolution in opposition to the DOI's proposed ban. Creating this buffer zone would render some land worthless to the tribesmen who own it, as drilling requires "horizontal lateral crossing of two to four miles of subsurface" through the very land they're making off-limits.
"The Chapters recognize the detrimental economic impact to the Navajo allottees should a buffer zone of any size be imposed around Chaco Canyon," the board of commissioners said in the resolution. "If a buffer zone is adopted, the Navajo allottees who rely on the income realized from oil and gas royalties will be pushed into greater poverty."
"The 25th Navajo Nation Council wishes to support the Navajo Nation members who hold allotted land in the area around Chaco Canyon and allow those members to maximize their economic interests," it went on. "The Navajo Nation does not support a buffer zone around Chaco Canyon."
An attempt at a compromise to bring the buffer zone to only 5 miles was also unsatisfactory. Perhaps that's because the anticipated loss of income is significant.
There are 53 land allotments representing 5,462 allottees in the area that are now off-limits, which translates to $6.2 million in annual royalties lost. There are another 418 allotments that are unleased but include 16,615 allottees.
Advocacy group Western Energy Alliance estimates $194 million in lost income for Navajo members over the next two decades with this ban. The organization's president, Kathleen Sgamma, excoriated Halaand as she "completely ignored the democratic resolutions of the sovereign Navajo Nation" to further her own tribe's goals (Halaand is a citizen of the neighboring Laguna Pueblo tribe).
"The decision prevents Navajo property owners from accessing the oil and natural gas resources they own, which provide them with their sustenance," Sgamma said. "Secretary Haaland didn’t even consider the Navajo compromise proposal when conducting the NEPA analysis necessary to support this decision, which leaves her and the Interior Department legally vulnerable."
The people who hold this area sacred should have the final say on what's done with the area surrounding it. However, the Biden administration is convinced it knows better.