Chaco Canyon

United States
Report By
Fiona McAlpine
June 3, 2019

The Greater Chaco Canyon area is a significant historical, archaeological and sacred site in northwest New Mexico. From the 9th to the 11th century, it was the center of the Pueblo civilization, comprised of dense apartment-like structures (pueblos), ceremonial kivas, plazas and an extensive network of roads. The site is considered sacred to multiple Native American tribes and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.

Today, the San Juan Basin, with Chaco Canyon at its center, is home to two coal-fired power plants, more than 40,000 oil and gas wells, and the toxic remnants of a collapsed uranium industry. The once pristine and otherworldly landscape now resembles an industrial park, with all the ecological and health harms that come with it.

Despite the enormous cultural importance of the area to humankind, and the devastating environmental impacts of coal, uranium, oil and gas, there is no end to destructive development in sight. A fracking boom now threatens this priceless, sacred, cultural landscape.


Chaco is exceptional for its unique architecture, which was built by the Pueblo people over a period of 600 years. The canyon and the surrounding areas are home to a vast network of great houses, ceremonial buildings, ancient roads and agricultural developments.

Initiatives since the 1980s to protect and study the ancient Chacoans have found more than 2,400 archaeological sites within the Chaco Culture National Historical Park boundaries, the vast majority of which have not been excavated. The actual number of sacred sites and artifacts in the area is not known. Although Chaco’s significance is debated by archaeologists, it is agreed that it was likely a trading crossroads and ceremonial center, with excavations unearthing vessels containing chocolate, macaw remains, conch shell trumpets, turquoise and other evidence of visitors from afar.

While it’s unknown if Chaco was a political empire, a strong cultural collective, or a diffuse group of clans sharing common architecture, it is clear that the entire region was part of a vast cultural tapestry woven intimately into the natural landscape. This history is of deep importance to the living ancestors of the ancient Pueblo people who live in communities in New Mexico and Arizona. Chaco Canyon is a sacred pilgrimage site for those who believe their ancestors still dwell in the ancient city.

The region is also of great importance to the Diné people, who now inhabit the surrounding region after settling in the Chaco Canyon area several hundred years after the Pueblo people abandoned the ancient city. Chaco now lies within the larger sovereign lands of the Diné Nation, which is cradled between four sacred mountains: La Platas of the north, Sierra Blanca and Pelado Peak in the east, Mount Taylor and Zuni Mountains in the south, and the San Francisco Peaks to the west.

The Threat

Today, Chaco Canyon is particularly vulnerable to resource exploitation, owing to the history of Navajo displacement and land repatriation that has carved up the Chaco region into a complex checkerboard of federal, state, private and Navajo allotment land.

This has created a confusing web of interests and actors, allowing oil, gas and mining companies to exploit layers of law, regulations, and oversight bodies to encroach further and further into what should be protected lands. It is an extraordinarily complex situation, and as Jonathan Thompson explains, it is this complexity that has benefited mining and fracking interests:

Most of the indigenous land is a “split estate,” meaning the Diné Nation owns the surface, but the federal government controls—and gets royalties from—the oil and gas underneath. The allottees receive royalties from extraction of minerals under their lands, but all leases must go through the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Because today’s oil wells can extend two or more miles horizontally, the oil they extract is often a combination of allotment and federal minerals—known as a unit or pool. That means multiple agencies are involved in permitting and oversight.

While the central monuments in Chaco Canyon are protected and managed by the U.S. National Park Service—the larger region is the domain of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which has a demonstrated record of favoring corporate interests over ecological and historic preservation.

The BLM has approved over 400 new wells for horizontal fracking in the area, despite inadequate consultation with tribal groups or satisfactory environmental review. The area is covered by an outdated 2003 plan, that opened the possibility of almost 10,000 new wells, spearheaded by then-BLM district manager Steve Henke, who was found to be accepting gifts from industry, and later took a position working for a leading oil and gas industry lobby group soon after leaving the BLM.

Anti-fracking efforts experienced a brief reprieve in 2016 under the Obama administration, with new leases deferred pending consultation with indigenous groups and a new archaeological analysis. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas drilling on public lands is a renewed priority, and is accelerating in the absence of any renewed plan or consultation. In early 2017, the BLM leased roughly 850 acres, despite the fact that development could affect 314 cultural features and a mesa known as Sis Naateel, home of Diné deities, a sacred spring and ceremonial deer-hunting grounds.

Diné and Pueblo groups have joined forces to call for a moratorium on further development, and have been joined by archaeologists who are concerned that a site as important as the Great Pyramid of Giza and Machu Picchu will be lost if reckless development is not halted immediately.

The cultural implications of further oil and gas extraction in the wider Chaco Canyon area are complex and far-reaching. The Pueblo and Diné people have lived side by side for millennia, but not always peacefully. Although tension still exist between the communities, they have found unity in opposition to development on land on to which they share an ongoing ancestral connection.

Marissa Naranjo, co-founder of the Diné-Pueblo Youth Solidarity Coalition, told High Country News: Chaco’s “entire landscape is sacred. There are outlier sites, prayer sites; it’s alive, it’s active [but] it’s not just about protecting cultural resources. The attack on our homelands necessitates solidarity with the Diné. They are the caretakers of that land. They are on the front lines every day, dealing with health and social impacts…That whole landscape connects us.”

Ecological Impacts

The environmental and health consequences of fracking are well documented. Fracking uses explosives and a pressurized mixture of sand, water and chemicals to stimulate natural gas and oil wells. The process adds more risk to the already environmentally hazardous process of gas and oil drilling, which releases pollution into the atmosphere. Pollutants include methane, hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals—all of which are known to cause health complications such as respiratory, nervous system and cardiovascular illness, as well as cancer.

According to Jonathan Thompson: “People near wells complain about burning eyes, scratchy throats, dizziness and nausea—symptoms associated with prolonged exposure to low levels of benzene and hydrogen sulfide, which occur naturally in oil and natural gas and can seep into the air during every step of extraction and processing, even from tanker trucks.”

Chaco is also an important refuge for biodiversity, and is home to wildlife such as elk, deer, bobcats, rabbits, badgers, porcupines, wild horses, bats, snakes, amphibians and multiple bird species.  Flora and fauna have been seriously impacted by extractive industries in the surrounding areas, making the protected Chaco Canyon one of the few places wildlife can continue to survive and thrive.

Diné communities that live around Chaco have reported multiple fires, caused by well explosions. Flares emitted by well sites can be seen and heard from miles away. The constant presence of tanker trucks kicks up dust and threatens wildlife and livestock. These animals often can’t tell the difference between freshwater sources and unfenced waste pits.

Legal and political campaign to protect the area

Three recent developments in early 2019 have created a brief reprieve for environmental and tribal activists working to protect Chaco. First in April, New Mexico State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard signed an executive order to create a buffer zone around Chaco Canyon. The order also created the Chaco Canyon Land Office Working Group, a board comprised of tribal communities, private landowners and government officials.

Second, in early May 2019, a federal court ruled that previous oil and gas drilling and fracking permits approved by the BLM were illegal. The appeals court ruling stemmed from a 2015 lawsuit holding that BLM failed to consider the cumulative impacts to air, water and the Navajo Nation in its environmental assessment. This ruling only applies to some permits, but was important recognition of the environmental impacts and shortcomings of environmental impact assessments.

Third, also in May 2019, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Protection Act was introduced in Congress. This Act would prevent any future leasing or mineral development on federal lands within a 10-mile radius around Chaco National Historical Park.

It remains to be seen which of these campaigns to halt oil and gas drilling and fracking will effectively protect Chaco. Despite opposition coming from multiple angles, the BLM is proposing dozens of new drilling sites on a regular basis, with public comment periods becoming more and more restricted.

What You Can Do

#FRACKOFFCHACO was established to unite the multiple groups working to protect the Greater Chaco cultural landscape, including native groups, community leaders, environmental nonprofits and other public lands and water protectors across the Southwest.

Find out more about how you can help here:


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