Protest derails planned celebration of 20-year oil drilling ban near Chaco National Park

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — It was meant to be a homecoming of sorts for U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, after her agency spent many months holding town hall meetings and talking with Native American leaders reducing the rate of oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin and protecting sites of cultural significance.

But his return to the Chaco Culture National Historic Park on Sunday was derailed when a group of Navajo landowners blocked the road, upset by the Biden administration’s recent decision to dedicate for the next 20 years what was previously a 10 miles (16 kilometers) informal. ) buffer zone around the World Heritage site.

Social media posts showed protesters shouting “Go home! as some held signs stating that trespassing on allocated land was prohibited.

Navajo landowners and leaders say Haaland and the Biden administration ignored efforts to reach a compromise that would have established a smaller buffer zone to protect cultural sites while keeping the viability of tribal lands and plots intact. Navajo-owned private land for future development.

Haaland gathered in Albuquerque on Sunday with tribal leaders to celebrate the withdrawal.

Haaland’s own pueblo, Laguna, about 100 miles to the south, is among those that have fought to protect a large swath of land beyond the park’s boundaries. Haaland called the Chaco a sacred place that holds deep meaning for indigenous peoples, and she spoke on Sunday about the cooperation over the decades between Navajo and Laguna people.

“This morning wasn’t ideal,” she told reporters. “To see any road in any of our national parks or our public lands blocked off was heartbreaking because our public lands belong to all Americans.”

Haaland said that in matriarchal societies, women have an obligation to care for their families and their communities. She said she takes her responsibilities seriously, both as a Pueblo woman and as Secretary of the Interior.

“We can disagree on politics. But we must be united in protecting our children, our culture, our shared sacred spaces,” Haaland said, winking at tribal communities who have raised concerns about the potential effects of new developments on people. cultural resources.

The region is made up of a patchwork of different owners. Even though the Biden administration’s withdrawal applies only to federal lands, Navajo officials and housing estate owners have said their interests will now be landlocked.

Navajo President Buu Nygren said in a statement Thursday that the weekend celebration was disappointing and disrespectful. It should have been canceled, he said.

“The financial and economic losses affecting many Navajo families as a result of the Secretary’s recent land removal are nothing to celebrate,” Nygren said. “As leaders of the Navajo Nation, we support Navajo recipients who oppose the removal of these public lands.”

Council of the Navajo Nation President Crystalyne Curley said subdivision owners have not been consulted enough despite claims by the federal government.

Industry groups have also backed Navajo leaders and landowners, with some alleging Haaland has conflicts of interest when it comes to oil and gas policy decisions.

A Republican-led U.S. House committee announced just days after the Chaco decision that it would investigate the secretary’s ties to an Indigenous environmental group that protested fossil fuels.

Still, a coalition of environmental groups and Native American activists who campaigned for the restrictions hailed Haaland’s order as a first step in protecting cultural sites and the region from pollution and climate change. The coalition also continues to push for legislation that would formalize the same buffer around the park, covering more than 490 square miles (1,269 square kilometers) of federal land.

A study released last fall by the Home Office shows that the withdrawal would not affect existing leases and that much of the area of ​​industry interest for future development is already under lease or is outside the bounds of what would be removed.

Federal officials have operated under an informal pause regarding development around Chaco Park for at least the past three presidential administrations, and supporters say Navajos had a seat at the table when discussing the latest moratorium.

The All Pueblo Board of Governors, which is made up of many tribes that support the pullout, noted Sunday that it was joint talks with the Navajo that began several years ago that prompted the pullout efforts.

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