Chaco Canyon is one of the most unchanged ancient landscapes in the entire world. Chacoan architecture provides an unparalleled example of an ancient scientific ability to measure the Earth’s relationship to the heavens by recoråding solar cycles, lunar phases and the exact hours of darkness and light during the spring and fall equinoxes. Chaco was the astronomical center of the ancient Pueblo world. It unleashed the power of predictability and knowledge of time and seasons that governed, and still govern, human activity, availability of food and the success or failure of a subsistence culture.
Much has been written and researched about Chaco’s vast astronomical architecture and political influence over a 95,000-square-mile “empire” that extended into Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and beyond. Less is known about why the enormous quantity of turquoise artifacts and offerings at Pueblo Bonito was brought to Chaco by people from distances of hundreds of miles. And even less is known about the end of Chaco—the careful sealing up of the kivas, removal of the roofs, and the final fires that scorched the inner walls after 250 years of building 10 immense great-houses.
What is known is that in 1100 A.D. the Southwest entered a prolonged drought and that Chacoans migrated away, leaving small communities behind that returned to subsistence farming.
Today, the Chaco landscape and the living communities remain—and both are highly threatened by a renewed drive by the oil industry for a final “play” in Mancos shale extraction. The gamble is a big one. As the world’s energy economy is rapidly shifting to renewable energy, the rusting infrastructure and escalating impacts of oil and gas extraction are destroying much of the rural West and sickening rural communities.
One small Navajo community, located near a county road that leads west off Highway 550 toward the great Chaco outlier at Pueblo Pintado, has looked at the current wave of new oil wells moving into the area and has decided the time for balance between profit and survival has come.
Counselor Chapter has fewer than 850 residents. The community school in Lybrook is located less than one-half mile from several active oil wells. Since 2015 local families have discussed their growing health problems and safety issues at public meetings, scoping sessions with the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs and at chapter gatherings. Similar stories of impacts from oil development have simultaneously emerged in the Navajo chapters of Nageezi, Ojo Encino, Torreón-Star Lake and Huerfano.
In May 2016, a Counselor area sheep grower told chapter members:
Yes, it bothers me. My lambs are being born deformed. My family, father, sister have medical issues. It really smells. The people doing the work must have no sympathy for us. The drillers are all over the place. You can’t just let the cattle go free. They might go to the site and eat some of the dirt, grass, or whatever is there. I think what the drillers are doing needs to stop right now. They can frack and drill beside allotments near my homesite. They told me they can even drill right next door. The road is getting really busy. Trucks go really fast, and it’s really dangerous.
Other residents report persistent health problems they believe are related to living in proximity to multiple oil wells. Some say emissions from flaring have caused dizziness, nose and throat irritation, fatigue, nosebleeds, coughing, shortness of breath and chest pain. Persistent odors from the wells are said to have caused nausea, headaches and an inability to concentrate. There has been an increase in sleeping difficulty because of the noise from compressors and well equipment, while light pollution and constant traffic have caused irritability, anxiety, depression and anger. Oil company trucks and tankers speed on narrow dirt roads and cut across residents’ land.
The Counselor Chapter drafted a resolution that reads, in part:
“Counselor Chapter requests assistance to secure funding to conduct health impact assessments, baseline water and soil testing and air quality monitoring for the impacted acres.”
In meetings throughout the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation—from Becenti to Whitehouse to Pueblo Pintado—11 other chapters passed similar resolutions that begin: “The Chapter is against all pending and future federal fluid mineral BLM leases within Navajo Eastern Agency areas until a reasonable revenue-sharing mechanism is developed, a new Farmington Field Office Resource Management Plan Amendment is developed, and a full understanding of potential environmental and health impacts of horizontal hydraulic fracturing is developed.”
The voices raised in Counselor have been heard and repeated in chapters throughout the greater Chaco area that are being explored for oil and gas. This year, several steps have been taken to draw attention to the living communities around the area. Air and water samples are now being collected and analyzed in a Navajo citizen-driven and citizen-funded effort.
Newly elected Rep. Derrick Lente successfully crafted a Memorial titled the “Protection of the Greater Chaco Landscape” that passed the New Mexico House of Representatives. Navajo President Russell Begay and All Pueblo Governors Council had a historic meeting and wrote a letter stating their ancient connections to Chaco and their concern for the communities being impacted.
Ancient Chaco provides all people with a way to understand the Earth’s relationship to the heavens. It is a lesson on how far people have traveled for that knowledge, motivated by the belief that we can control the chaos on Earth by matching human activity to the precise order of the sun’s hours and the moon’s phases. It shows us how to time the growing of food based on the seasons, how to predict rainfall and animal abundance, and it provides understanding about the scale of nature’s ability to change, destroy and regenerate.
The canyon landscape is irreplaceable. The descendants who remain and live in the small communities that surround Chaco are the keepers of that time and heritage.
Teresa Seamster is member of the Counselor Health Impact Assessment Committee.
Bureau of Land Management Promises Protection for Chaco
Over the last five years, hundreds of new oil and gas wells approved by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), mostly near Navajo communities, have been drilled and hydraulically fractured (fracked) in the Greater Chaco Canyon region of northwest New Mexico as horizontal drilling has been used to tap the Mancos shale formation.
Horizontal wells have double the surface impact (5.2 acres) of vertical wells, emit more than 250 percent more air pollution, require 5-10 times more water, and utilize a toxic cocktail known to include carcinogens and chemicals harmful to human health.
Earlier this year, the Navajo Nation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors called for a moratorium on fracking-related activities in the region until the current resource-management planning process is complete. The request came on the heels of demands from 15 Navajo Nation chapters’ resolutions and letters from more than 100 organizations represented by the Protect Greater Chaco Coalition.
A final scoping report released on June 6 by the BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) offers hope for safeguarding what some call “the cultural heart of the American Southwest” from a surge in oil and gas production. It presents a thorough accounting of the more than 15,000 comments received opposing more fracking in the region and presents an outline for the agencies’ new plan for managing oil and gas activities. If the promises in the scoping report are followed, the new management plan will address tribal interests, social and cultural issues, economic, environmental and public health issues. It will address climate change, air, water and soil impacts, seismic activity, wildlife, livestock grazing, night-sky impacts, traffic and roads, recreation, archaeological resources—and the area of greatest public concern—landscape-wide cultural protection.
The planning area encompasses 6,500 square miles of federal, state, tribal and private lands. The next step for the BLM and BIA is to prepare a draft analysis for the new plan, which the agencies expect to release in the fall of 2018. The planning process for the region is to be completed by 2020. In the meantime, the BLM continues to approve more fracking wells and lease more land for oil and gas in Greater Chaco.