Chaco Canyon’s future: a pledge for environmental justice and tribal rights

Amid environmental concerns and cultural significance, the Honoring Chaco Initiative aims to transform the Greater Chaco Landscape, but real progress remains in limbo.

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The Honoring Chaco Initiative (HCI), launched by the U.S. Department of the Interior, represents a beacon of hope for the Greater Chaco Region—a culturally rich and ecologically sensitive area in northern New Mexico. This ambitious initiative proposes a 20-year ban on new oil and gas drilling and fracking in the region, marking a significant shift from the legacy of industrial exploitation that has long plagued this landscape. However, the journey towards true environmental justice and cultural preservation is far from over.

At the heart of the HCI lies a commitment to end all new oil and gas drilling and fracking in the Greater Chaco region, with a phased elimination of existing extraction activities. This approach aligns with the broader goal of establishing Tribal co-management strategies, ensuring that future decisions about land stewardship are made collaboratively with the Native communities most affected by these activities.

Carol Davis, Managing Director of Native Organizers Alliance, emphasized the urgency of this initiative: “The Department of Interior must act swiftly to halt new extraction permits, restore our lands, and prioritize Tribal co-management. This is not just about ending harmful resource extraction; it’s about the long-term health and prosperity of local Native communities.”

The initiative’s comprehensive approach includes halting new oil and gas drilling, developing Tribal co-management strategies, and restoring the region’s natural resources. Moreover, it seeks to provide economic security and sustainability for local communities, including extensive cleanup efforts of deteriorating oil and gas infrastructure.

Despite the promise of the HCI, concerns are growing about the slow pace of progress. Two years have passed since Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the initiative, but the Greater Chaco Coalition, a collaboration of Indigenous leaders, nonprofits, and environmental groups, has observed minimal advancements since the completion of Phase 1.

The Greater Chaco Region, with its complex history of mineral extraction, continues to suffer from the adverse effects of over 40,000 injection wells. Kendra Pinto, a Diné community member, vividly recounts the traumatic experiences of oil and fracking fluid storage tank explosions, highlighting the ongoing environmental and health risks faced by local communities.

In response to these challenges, the HCI proposes a novel approach to land management. It introduces concepts such as landscape-level management and a cultural landscape management framework, focusing on the interconnectedness of heritage, environmental conservation, and economic interests.

However, the path to realizing these goals is fraught with challenges. The recent 20-year mineral withdrawal, while a significant step, falls short of the comprehensive protection needed. It fails to address existing leases and doesn’t extend to private, state, or Tribal entities’ minerals. Moreover, the Navajo Nation’s newly elected president, Buu Nygren, has expressed reservations about the withdrawal, citing economic concerns for Navajo allottees involved in oil production.

The Greater Chaco Coalition continues to advocate for the full realization of the HCI’s goals. They urge the Biden administration to take decisive action to protect this vital landscape and its communities. The Coalition’s efforts are a clarion call for environmental justice, seeking to transform the way public lands are managed and to address the longstanding environmental and social injustices faced by frontline communities.

In conclusion, the Honoring Chaco Initiative stands at a critical juncture. It holds the potential to chart a new course for the Greater Chaco Region, one that respects the rights and well-being of its Indigenous communities and honors the sacredness of the land. As advocates and community members await further action from the Department of the Interior, the call for a just and sustainable future for Greater Chaco grows ever louder.

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