By Cherry Payne, Park Rangers for Our Lands
I fell in love with the night sky in national parks. Sure, I had seen the Milky Way when I found myself in remote areas. But it was after I became a park ranger while living and working in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada mountains, far from big cities and light pollution that I really began to enjoy the wonder of dark night skies. Today, I live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in a community that preserves the night sky through lighting covenants. When friends and relatives visit, we often run outside to see the International Space Station fly over, or now, eagerly look for the first glimpses of Comet ISON. New moon nights when the Milky Way sprawls above us are extra special.
So when I heard that BLM was considering allowing drilling less than a mile from one of the most stellar (literally) national parks, I was disheartened.
Chaco Culture National Park is a gem…it is remote, wild and amazing…and worth a visit or two or three.
Built and occupied by an ancient and sophisticated people, it seems all roads once led to Chaco. Starting in the mid-to-late 9th century and into the 13th, it appears Chaco might have been part of a vast trade network. Macaws, copper bells, turquoise, conch shells, and other items from far away have been found at Chaco. There must also have been a large number of people, given that there are over 3000 structures in the park. And among them were engineers and astronomers, as evidenced by the structural sophistication of the buildings and their alignment to the four cardinal directions. Many buildings contain features marking astronomical, lunar, and solar alignments such as the summer solstice. Today, native peoples throughout the Southwest consider Chaco to be a sacred place, fundamental to their tribal heritage.
So a visit to this special place evokes mystery and wonder and a sense of solitude.
Theodore Roosevelt National Park located in North Dakota, some one thousand miles from Chaco serves as a cautionary tale when considering impacts of oil and gas extraction close to a park. With some 6000 wells already in place in Western North Dakota, and another 39,000 expected to be developed in the coming years, the park is under siege. Oil rigs can be seen from the park, and oil flares send flames of light into the night sky, diminishing what was once one of the darkest places for star-gazing. There are hazardous chemicals in the air, truck traffic rumbles down roads kicking up dust, and a well has been staked out close to President Roosevelt’s beloved ranch home. The growls of trucks are heard in the once-quiet park campground. In an ironic twist, it was President Theodore Roosevelt who first saw the need to protect Chaco by declaring it a national monument in 1907.
So this was the specter of BLM issuing oil and gas leases near Chaco.
And this week, we heard some good news: the Bureau of Land Management is recommending deferring leases on almost 18,000 acres of land located near the park. We appreciate New Mexico BLM listened to the voices of cultural preservationists, astronomers, Indian tribes, and old park rangers in developing a plan that allows oil leasing to continue in New Mexico, but not at the expense Chaco Culture National Park.
We also appreciate the leadership of our U.S. Senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich for recognizing the importance of Chaco not only to the people of New Mexico, but to all Americans.
The next step is for BLM state director Jesse Juen to develop a comprehensive plan for oil and gas development in New Mexico that will protect the landscapes, wildlife, night skies and the rich cultural heritage found in and around the park.
Don’t get me wrong. Park Rangers for Our Lands recognizes the need to develop oil and gas resources on federal lands. We simply believe that preservation of treasured lands that were set aside for the American people in perpetuity needs to be a part of the conversation. We believe that with proper planning we can have both the preservation of our important western landscapes and the development of the energy resources our country needs.
Preservation of our natural and cultural heritage is as important as other national goals.