Oil and gas drilling could dim the night sky in Chaco Canyon

New Mexico's Chaco Canyon at night.

National Park Service

A thousand years ago, Chaco Canyon was a thriving cultural center for the ancestral Pueblo peoples of the Southwest. Multi-storied Great Houses containing hundreds of rooms lined the canyon and exotic birds and colorful pottery filled ancient marketplaces.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo: Ti Hayes

Today, the ruins of Chaco are a wonder to behold, many of which are protected in the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The remaining stone buildings at Chaco are so significant that the park is designated a World Heritage Site, one of only twenty in the United States. It is also one America’s preeminent stargazing locations.

Designating dark skies

Last year, the Chaco Culture National Historical Park became the newest park to receive the International Dark Sky designation. The park is one of the best places in the United States to stargaze, allowing visitors to experience the night sky much like the ancestors of modern pueblos and tribes did on that very same site hundreds of years ago. On April 24, 2014, the park celebrates the new designation with a Star Party and educational events for the public to learn about and explore astronomy at Chaco.

Unfortunately for stargazers, there is a growing—and glowing—threat near Chaco: oil and gas drilling close to the park.

In 2009, the oil and gas industry nominated several parcels within a few miles of Chaco Canyon. One of these was on Great North Road, which once connected the canyon with the settlement known now as Aztec Ruins National Monument. Since then, industry has continued to nominate dozens of parcels all around the park.

The problem with light pollution

One of the less-recognized effects of oil and gas development that can have a big impact on our national parks is light pollution. Oil and gas development near the park would add noise, light and air pollution to this cultural center. Drilling would also further fragment the fragile network of cultural resources connected to Chaco Canyon and its neighboring settlements.

Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. Photo: Travis S., Flickr

Now, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is beginning a new plan to address oil and gas management for the landscape surrounding Chaco Canyon. This is an opportunity to ensure that Chaco Canyon’s cultural artifacts are protected, including the web of ancient roads that archaeologists are still piecing together.

As part of the oil and gas plan, the BLM has the opportunity to consider a Master Leasing Plan for the area. Master Leasing Plans are a new tool for the BLM that are intended to provide for smarter energy planning on our public lands by identifying areas of high conflict between energy development and resource conservation and finding ways to protect cultural, natural and recreation values while providing for responsible oil and gas extraction. A Master Leasing Plan for the greater Chaco landscape would be a good way to protect important cultural resources in this area in advance of further development.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Canyon. Photo: Ti Hayes

The BLM’s oil and gas plan will also address lands with wilderness characteristics and how to protect those wild places from development.  A Master Leasing Plan could help the BLM to identify and avoid conflicts with wilderness-quality lands, in addition to the cultural resources surrounding Chaco Canyon. It’s a critical time for the northwest corner of New Mexico, abundant with many resources that require careful balance.