What We Do: Initiatives

Oil Development and the Chaco Cultural Landscape

NEW! Read our brochure on the issues, possible solutions, and what you can do to help (opens as a PDF)

UPDATE, October 20, 2016: DOI Announces BLM-BIA Cooperative Effort 

UPDATE, August 12, 2016: Oil and Gas Industry Group Sues BLM (Farmington Daily Times)

UPDATE, June 6, 2016: The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the BLM is postponing land auction near Chaco Canyon.

Archaeology Southwest is part of a broad coalition seeking protections for the Greater Chaco Landscape. Visit the coalition’s website: protectgreatchaco.org.

Key points:

The Greater Chaco Landscape is important for many reasons, to many different people. It contains the world-famous great houses and kivas of Chaco Canyon, which hold great spiritual and cultural value to modern Native Americans. And it supports the traditional lifestyles of Navajo and other native people who continue to live on the land, raising their families and continuing the ranching and farming practices of their ancestors.

Oil and gas development is a significant concern for all who care about the Greater Chaco Landscape. Over the years, oil and gas development has sprawled across this landscape. Noisy wells surround sacred sites, while access roads crisscross ancient paths to and from the canyon. Meanwhile, new wells are being drilled amongst homes, schools and community buildings, and residents are rightfully concerned for the health and safety of their families and ability to continue their traditional ways.

While our tactics may differ, we share a common goal. Those who are concerned for the Greater Chaco Landscape – from archaeologists to local residents – share a common goal: to avoid the impacts of oil and gas development to the maximum extent possible. While we may be pursuing different strategies, we are all committed to achieving this goal.

A master leasing plan can and should be part of the solution. While master leasing plans are designed to strike a balance (and allow for responsible development in some places), they do this by limiting the overall impacts of development and helping agencies, stakeholders and communities collaborate on a plan for the area. This would be a step in the right direction and welcome change from the past way of doing things.

A core zone surrounding Chaco Canyon should be prioritized for protection. A core zone of public and tribal lands surrounding Chaco Canyon, extending roughly 10 miles from the national park’s boundaries, should be prioritized for protection, as requested by the All Pueblo Council of Governors, among others. This zone contains an extremely high concentration of significant, well-preserved cultural and natural resources, including segments of the Great North Road, the viewshed of the national park and portions of the World Heritage Site. Future leasing and development should be prohibited within the core zone, which can be designated and managed through the MLP.

Sign our petition to the Bureau of Land Management, urging the BLM to create a ten-mile protection zone around Chaco Canyon that will be closed to oil and gas extraction.

Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon with prehistoric roads.

Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon with prehistoric roads. © Adriel Heisey

History of Archaeology Southwest’s Advocacy on behalf of the Greater Chaco Landscape:

December 29, 2015: Paul Reed provides a report on the forums in Cortez and Albuquerque here.

November 9, 2015: The public is invited to two open meetings to discuss threats to the Greater Chaco and Mesa Verde Landscapes on November 21 (Cortez, CO) and December 5 (Albuquerque, NM). Click on each date for details. To read the Cortez Journal article (11/23/15) about the November 21 forum, go here.

August 20, 2015: Science magazine publishes an article by Michael Balter, “Big Archaeology fights Big Oil to preserve ancient landscape,” featuring the work of Archaeology Southwest and its partners and discussing the issues involved. You can access that article via Paul Reed’s blog post here.

August 19, 2015: U.S. District Court ruling. Click here.

June 30, 2015: Meeting with Senator Tom Udall at Chaco Canyon. Click here.

May 20, 2015: Touring the majestic Chaco landscape. Click here.


Over the past few months, Archaeology Southwest has continued to consult with the Farmington BLM as an interested party on the RMP (Resource Management Plan) and draft EIS (Environmental Impact Statement) process for the Mancos Shale development. This process continues into 2015, and our hope—working with BLM, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Navajo Nation—is to get additional protection for the most sensitive cultural resources across the Chaco Landscape.

Archaeology Southwest’s Paul Reed participated in an October 2014 flyover aimed at building support for a comprehensive management plan to protect Chaco Canyon. Read the article here.

In December, an additional flyover of Chaco (link leads to Reed’s blog post on the flight) and the current oil-gas development just north of the UNESCO World Heritage site of Chaco Canyon was conducted by EcoFlight, in cooperation with the Partnership for Responsible Business and Archaeology Southwest. As a result of the October and December flyovers, a short film was produced to highlight the fragility of the Chaco Landscape and the threat of oil-gas development nearby. View that film here.

In a letter dated May 27, 2014, Archaeology Southwest provided comments to the Farmington Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The BLM had solicited comments from concerned parties as it prepared to revisit and amend its Resource Management Plan (RMP) for the Mancos-Gallup District in light of renewed oil and gas exploration in the region. When the BLM completed the RMP in 2003, experts presumed that oil and gas resources were exhausted and that extraction would cease.

Now, new technologies (sometimes referred to as “fracking”) are making it possible to continue to extract oil and gas from the Mancos Shale layer. The substantial increase in actual and expected exploration poses clear threats to the Chacoan cultural landscape of northwestern New Mexico. In our letter, we assessed several critical threats and proposed specific ways to mitigate potential damages.

Archaeology Southwest developed its recommendations to the BLM in conjunction with participants in our ongoing Middle San Juan Basin cultural resources priority planning process. The comments also reflect and follow on discussions that occurred at the Society for American Archaeology meetings in April.

Professional archaeologists and members of the public will meet at San Juan College in August, just before the Pecos Conference, an annual gathering of Southwestern archaeologists. Participants will consider how to preserve and protect the cultural landscapes threatened by oil development. Archaeology Southwest’s Paul Reed and Matt Peeples will attend and report on these meetings.

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