Good news for public lands: Greater Chaco Canyon gets protection from drilling

President Biden announced a 20-year ban on oil drilling in a critical area surrounding Chaco Cultural Historic Park

Cover image: Pueblo Bonito Kiva at night with star paths Via NPS


From our oceans white with foam to our purple mountains majesty, there is little doubt that we live in America the beautiful. New Mexico boasts great examples of that majesty. We are home to the red rocks and dramatic landscape of Chaco Canyon, the staggering peaks of the Organ Mountains and the spectacular Santa Fe National Forest. This beauty -- beloved by all New Mexicans -- is a reminder that nature unites.


This week, President Joe Biden showed support for New Mexico’s great outdoors with an announcement that the Department of the Interior will begin the process to protect the Greater Chaco Canyon area. The likely result is that there will be a 20-year moratorium on oil and gas development within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Cultural Historical Park. This policy shift will protect the landscape by prohibiting any new oil and gas leasing and development on federal lands within the newly protected 10-mile zone. 

Fajada Butte at sunset Via NPS

Anyone who has spent time in the park will understand why this is so vital. Time stands still in Chaco Canyon. Designated a dark sky site, at night you can watch the Milky Way rise into the night sky illuminating the remnants of a culture that thrived more than a thousand years ago. 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. 

Chaco Canyon is a living reminder of the past. The area is home to the remnants of civilization from over a thousand years ago. It features multi-level homes from 900 AD, including a grand house with more than 600 rooms, and greater than 230 outlying settlements all connected by a web of ancient roadways. Chaco Canyon is one of the most archaeologically significant sites in the United States and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Greater Chaco Landscape is home to many indigenous groups, some of whom trace their ancestry back to the original people of Chaco. 

Bobcat in cottonwood tree Via NPS

By protecting this natural jewel, lawmakers will also help a broader push when it comes to our wild spaces. President Biden has set a goal of safeguarding 30% of our lands by 2030. It’s a wonderful promise, but to make it a reality means taking a hands on approach. So far so good. In October, the president restored protections to two other of our region’s special places: Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. During the signing Interior Secretary Deb Haaland described the value of our monuments as “living landscapes” that hold a legacy of conservation. By restoring protections to these wild spaces, President Biden has ensured that these treasured areas will remain a part of that lasting legacy.

Kin Bineola Via NPS

To make sure we get to a finish line that preserves our natural and cultural heritage and the wildlife that roam in those spaces, Congress must act and pass permanent protections for the Greater Chaco Canyon Area. We can and should celebrate today but next we must press for a comprehensive and enduring fix.  We must make sure we are not having this conversation again in 2041. We need legislation that truly protects the area. It must include air and water quality considerations, and ensure the responsible cleanup of abandoned wells -- as well as require the buy-back of existing leases. This bill must also include adequate tribal consultation when evaluating the impacts of leases on sites that are significant to the indigenous people. Anything less short-changes New Mexico’s natural majesty.