The protest scraps a planned celebration of the 20-year ban on oil drilling near Chaco National Park

Social media posts saw protesters blocking the road and shouting “Go home!”

(Jon Austria | The Albuquerque Journal via AP) Landowner Paulina Atenico, left, urges activists Sunday, June 11, 2023 near a roadblock on County Road 7950 east of Chaco Culture National Park to “go home.” . Opponents and supporters for a clash in the buffer zone surrounding Chaco Culture National Park Sunday after Navajo Allotees blocked part of CR 7950 leading into the park during US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland’s scheduled visit.

Albuquerque, NM • It should be a homecoming of sorts for US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland after her agency spent many months holding public meetings and working with Native American leaders on slowing the pace of oil and gas exploration in the San Juan Basin and protecting it to speak of culturally significant sites.

But their return to Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Sunday fell through when a group of Navajo landowners blocked the road, angered by the Biden administration’s recent decision to allow what had previously been an informal 10-mile route for the next 20 years to protect ) buffers around the world heritage site.

Social media posts showed protesters shouting “Go home!” Some held signs that read, “Entering the allotted land prohibited.”

The landowners and Navajo leaders said Haaland and the Biden administration have ignored efforts to reach a compromise that would have created a smaller buffer to protect cultural sites while preserving the viability of tribal and privately owned Navajo parcels for future development had.

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

(Jon Austria | The Albuquerque Journal via AP) US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland speaks Sunday, June 11, 2023 at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Southwest Regional Office, in Albuquerque, NM.

Haaland’s own Pueblo Laguna — about 100 miles south — is among those who have fought to protect a broad swath of land beyond the park’s boundaries. Haaland called Chaco a sacred place that holds deep meaning for Indigenous people, and she spoke Sunday about decades of collaboration between Navajos and the people of Laguna.

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

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

“We cannot agree on politics. But we must be united in protecting our children, our culture and our shared sacred spaces,” Haaland said, nodding to tribal communities who have raised concerns about the potential impact of new developments on cultural resources.

The region consists of a patchwork of different ownership structures. Even though the Biden administration’s withdrawal relates only to federal lands, Navajo officials and allotment owners said their interests are now limited to inland.

Navajo President Buu Nygren said in a statement released Thursday that the weekend’s celebrations were disappointing and disrespectful. It should have been canceled, he said.

“The financial and economic losses suffered by many Navajo families as a result of the minister’s recent land seizure are not cause for celebration,” Nygren said. “As leaders of the Navajo Nation, we support the Navajo Allottees who oppose the confiscation of these public lands.”

Navajo National Council spokeswoman Crystalyne Curley said allotment owners have not been adequately consulted, despite claims by the federal government.

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

A Republican-led committee of the US House of Representatives announced just days after the Chaco decision that it would investigate the minister’s ties to an Indigenous environmental group that has protested fossil fuels.

Still, a coalition of environmental groups and Native American activists behind 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, which spans more than 490 square miles (1,269 square kilometers) of state land.

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

In at least the last three presidential elections, federal officials have taken an informal pause on developments around Chaco Park, and proponents argue that Navahos sat at the table when the latest moratorium was debated.

The all-Pueblo board of governors, made up of many tribes supporting the disengagement, noted Sunday that it was joint talks with the Navajos that began several years ago that sparked the disengagement effort.

Justin Scaccy

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