Navajo Nation opposes any Chaco Canyon buffer zone

The Energy for All Act would nullify the 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park

By: - July 17, 2023 4:04 am

Navajo Nation officials and allottees testified before Congress about the 10 mile barrier around Chaco Culture National Historical Park on July 13, 2023. (Photo by Pauly Denetclaw / ICT)

WASHINGTON — The 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwest New Mexico continues to be a contentious issue. The latest move by Navajo Nation officials and allottees is supporting H.R. 4374, the Energy Opportunities for All Act.

Navajo Nation officials and allottees testified Thursday before the Energy and Mineral Resources subcommittee in support and opposition of the Energy Opportunities for All Act. There was no Pueblo leadership or representatives testifying at the hearing.

The proposed act would nullify the buffer zone around Chaco Canyon. The Navajo Nation Council, the legislative body for the nation, recently passed a resolution to oppose any buffer zone in the area. The nation’s leadership previously supported the compromise of a five mile withdrawal.

Arizona Rep. Eli Crane is championing the bill and introduced it into Congress in June. It is co-sponsored by another Arizona representative Paul Gosar.

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During the hearing, Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and allottee representative Delora Hesuse (Navajo) alleged that the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management didn’t conduct meaningful consultation with the nation.

“It’s disingenuous those comments that were made today when the record shows that there’s been a long, long consultation that’s happened,” Mario Atencio, vice president of Torreon/Star Lake Chapter, told ICT.

Atencio (Diné) is a local government official and allottee.

“My community Torreon/Star Lake Chapter, I’m here because they passed the resolution to protect Chaco,” Atencio said. “It’s nearly unanimous in my community. And that’s the reason why I’m here and only to relay that message. Past leaders, they’ve signed letters demanding protection of Chaco. I stand with those leaders. Some of those decisions haven’t been rescinded and my place is to speak for them.”

Only seven people in the community voted against the resolution to protect Chaco Canyon, the vast majority voted to support the 10 mile buffer zone.

There are 110 chapter houses on the Navajo Nation that are akin to local city or municipal governments.

From 2016 to 2019, a dozen chapter houses all located around Chaco Canyon passed resolutions in support of the 10-mile barrier. The nation is broken up into five different agencies. All of the Eastern Agency is located in New Mexico.

In 2023, four of those chapters have since flipped their position and passed resolutions in opposition to any buffer zone.

“There has been extensive engagement with the Navajo Nation and allottees for the many years that this longstanding issue has been under discussion and specifically in connection with this specific withdrawal process,” an Interior spokesperson said in a written statement. “The withdrawal under (Public Land Order) 7923 is the result of nearly a decade of continual engagement by the Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management with Tribal Nations, regional communities, and elected officials, many of them seeking elevated protections for the important cultural sites and landscapes of the Greater Chaco Region.”

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) has engaged directly with Navajo Presidents Jonathan Nez and Buu Nygren in 2022 and 2023, respectively.

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Despite this Nygren said during the hearing that meaningful consultation wasn’t conducted by the Interior or Bureau of Land Management because they did not consider who was most impacted, the Navajo people located within the 10-mile buffer zone who could lose royalty payments they rely on.

“This predates me. I know there (was a proposed) five-mile buffer zone, there’s a 20-mile buffer zone, but… at least a five-mile buffer zone, that would have been good, we wouldn’t be having this discussion,” Nygren said to ICT.

The five-mile buffer zone was a widely supported compromise because there isn’t any oil and gas within six miles of Chaco Canyon. So there couldn’t be any development.

“When Secretary Haaland came into office, she promised to listen to Indian Country and give us a stronger role in decisions affecting our lives. But she did not listen to our allottee voices, she did not consult with us or with the Navajo Nation on our proposed five-mile compromise,” Hesuse, Navajo citizen and allottee, said in her testimony to the subcommittee. “Secretary Haaland instead issued the (public land order) that withdraws the federal minerals necessary to the development of our allottee minerals. The Navajo Nation and the allottees that are united in their opposition to any buffer around the park. That is why we testify today in support of H.R. 4374.”

However, the Interior stated that the public land order does not affect the mineral rights or development on allottee land.

“(Public Land Order) 7923 expressly excludes allotment lands and minerals,” an Interior spokesperson stated. “In fact, the Department has continued to hold lease sales and issue permits to drill for allotment lands and minerals in and around the withdrawal area.”

Shoulda, coulda, woulda

With the five-mile buffer zone compromise off the table for the foreseeable future and the introduction of this new bill, it seems there is little hope of a solution to this issue.

“The other thing I think about is, there should have been part of the public (land) order that says, you know, Navajo, we’re taking this much away from you, we’ll reinvest this amount. I think that if you take food off the table, you should put some other food on the table,” Nygren said.

Atencio also saw tourism as a possible economic solution.

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“There’s millions upon millions of dollars left on the table, that the local community is not organizing themselves,” Atencio said. “‘Communities shouldn’t be looking for handouts,’ is what a Republican value is. Why are people looking for corporate handouts when they can actually build up themselves in the Republican way and develop tourism. People need to sleep somewhere and eat a sandwich.”

The Navajo Nation surrounds Chaco Canyon and it could be a monopoly that provides hotels, restaurants, gas stations, arts and crafts, ecotourism, and more.

“From our perspective, from another community, it’s basically a permit to print money and it’s not being pursued,” he said.

This story was first published by and it is republished here with permission.

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Pauly Denetclaw, ICT
Pauly Denetclaw, ICT

Pauly Denetclaw, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is Haltsooí (Meadow People) born for Kinyaa’áanii (Towering House People). An award-winning reporter based in Gallup, New Mexico, she has worked for the Navajo Times and Texas Observer covering Indigenous communities, and her radio pieces have aired on KYAT, National Native News, NPR’s Latino USA and Texas Public Radio. She is a board member of the Native American Journalist Association.