Chaco Canyon, a priceless desert park and cultural site, wins reprieve from oil and gas drilling

A one-year pause on drilling isn’t enough — Chaco needs permanent protections, now.

Jake Taber


On June 7, 2023, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a 20-year moratorium on drilling within a 10-mile “buffer zone” around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Public Land Order No. 7923.


This article was original published in 2001

They say you feel time stand still in Chaco Culture National Historical Park, where by night you can look up at vast skies untouched by urban light pollution and by day see the ruins of a culture that thrived more than a thousand years ago.

On December 27, 2020, Congress granted the area surrounding Chaco Canyon a one-year reprieve from fracking and drilling on its doorstep — a reprieve we want to make permanent.

Why are these thousand-year-old ruins in the desert so important? And why have Environment New Mexico and Environment America worked for years to protect Chaco Canyon?

A truly special place

Chaco Canyon in New Mexico is a national treasure.

It’s also a UNESCO world heritage site, where massive ruins—the shrines, meeting halls and homes built by ancestral Puebloans around a thousand years ago—are sacred to local tribes. They’ve preserved, for modern tribes and historians, an ancient and complex culture across a vast expanse of time.

It’s also known for its dark skies. Situated in often-cloudless desert far from the lights of development and industry, it’s so uniquely perfect for stargazers that in 2013 it was designated an “international dark sky park.”

In this darkness and isolation, desert wildlife thrive. Elk, bobcats, badgers, bats and lizards all make their homes here in dense concentrations, living and roaming among the ruins and the otherworldly red rock formations that surround them. Some of them are nocturnal, adapted to, and dependent on, the dark night skies.

Unfortunately, the lands surrounding this beautiful place are perched right on top of proven oil and gas reserves. That’s already opened up Chaco’s surroundings to some unwelcome new neighbors.

A staggering 91 percent of the federal lands surrounding the park are already leased to fossil fuel companies for drilling and fracking. And recently, companies have pushed for access to drilling leases on tracts that inch even closer to the park. Proposed plans backed by the previous administration would have brought the light, noise and shocks of fracking right up to Chaco’s doorstep.

Protecting Chaco

For years, as fossil fuel companies have tried to encroach on the land around the park, we’ve joined a broader coalition of Indigenous leaders and groups, elected officials from the state, and environmental advocates in arguing for its permanent protection from fracking.

Our members and supporters have submitted letters to the editor, photo petitions and messages to decision-makers opposing plans to drill around the park. We released a report, written by our research partners, highlighting the dangers drilling poses to New Mexicans and the places we love, along with the more than 3 billion gallons of waste, containing benzene and other toxic pollutants, the fracking industry generates in New Mexico in a single year.

In 2017, we went door to door across the Albuquerque area in support of improved federal protections for special New Mexico places like Chaco. In 2019, we threw our weight behind the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act (H.R. 2181), which passed the House that October but later stalled in the Senate.

And last year, our national network’s supporters submitted more than 11,000 public comments opposing the previous administration’s plans to frack Chaco. Those are the plans that the recently-passed one-year moratorium puts on hold.

The moratorium is in place thanks to U.S. Rep. Ben-Ray Lujan’s amendment to a recently passed congressional spending bill. Now, we have some breathing room to make sure this place is protected forever.



Timeless protections for a timeless place

Chaco is a place that has truly stood the test of time. Its structures have been around for four times longer than America has been a country. Despite the pressure the fossil fuel industry has applied and the breakneck pace of industry and extraction, its wildlife, its skies and its rich cultural value remain intact.

The closer fracking comes to Chaco Canyon, the less dark its skies become; the more polluted its air and water becomes; the more disturbed the creatures that call it home become; and the more threatened its cherished ruins become.

It’s a choice between preservation of the timeliness or indulgence of the short-sighted. Which is really no choice at all.



Jake Taber