“The legislative body of the Navajo Nation Council and I are unified in our opposition to the ten-mile buffer. The withdrawal was done without meaningful consultation and fails to honor the Navajo Nation sovereignty. Respect for tribal sovereignty must be consistent, even when it is not convenient. The nation offered a compromise that honored Navajo sovereignty and the rights of our allottees, but that was rejected with inadequate explanation from the administration.”
In June, Sec. Haaland announced a land withdrawal of a ten-mile radius surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park that prevents leasing of federal oil and natural gas. The area is home to members of the Navajo Nation who own property and the oil and natural gas rights. The withdrawal of federal leasing affects their lands, called allotments, which are interspersed within the federal lands. Withdrawing federal leasing for the next 20 years prevents these Navajo property owners, known as allottees, from developing their energy resources and earning over $194 million in royalties.
A month prior to Haaland’s withdrawal decision, the Navajo Nation passed a resolution opposing any buffer zone around Chaco Canyon. The tribe previously offered a smaller five-mile buffer compromise that balanced greater protection of the park while enabling Navajo mineral owners to develop most of their resources. They revoked that offer out of frustration with the interior Secretary’s failure to conduct sufficient tribal consultation. That lack of cooperation was keenly displayed to President Nygren when he learned about the decision while listening to the local news, not directly from Sec. Haaland or her staff.
Personal and Economic Costs
Delora Heuse, who lives within the ten-mile buffer testified to the committee about the benefits derived from developing her energy and how the earnings lift tribal children out of poverty.
“This is hugely important because our area is very poor and families still do not have electricity or running water. Our elderly rely on this money to feed their children and livestock. I know for a fact that a lot of these families have sent their children to school on royalty money. Some of them are now doctors and engineers. Other families have built businesses, including a very successful construction business,” Heuse said in her opening statement. “Many are out of work because leases and drilling permits are not being approved. The public land order strains the Navajo allotments and minerals, making any new development impossible.”
In addition, Heuse described her disappointment in Secretary Haaland, the first Native American to lead DOI, stating, “When Secretary Haaland came into office, she promised to listen to the Indian Country and give us a stronger role in decisions affecting our lives. But she did not listen. She did not listen to our lofty voices.”
Anita Ashland of Enduring Resources testified that there is no development within a six-mile radius of the historic park because the geology is not favorable. There are, however, 418 unleased allotments between six and ten miles from the park, “that affect over 16,000 allottees with mineral resources that will never be developed because of the federal matters that surround them.”
Ashland detailed the threats to economic opportunities on several maps, noting the buffer will prevent the development of 233 wells. “Enduring estimates that approximately 56,320 acres outside of the currently existing Mancos/Gallups federal units could be economically developed if the buffer withdrawal had not occurred. Of that, 10,720 acres, or 19%, are Navajo allotments. Therefore, the impact of the withdrawal falls largely on the allottees without the federal leases.
The Future Remains Uncertain
Frustrations were revealed at several points in the hearing. President Nygren told lawmakers tribal sovereignty is the law and must be respected. “It's a little frustrating. Tribal sovereignty shouldn't be a convenience. It should be something that we live by. There's laws, there's ways of working with tribes,” he said.
Navajo tribal members now face an uncertain future without access to their families’ mineral allotments. President Nygren concluded, “There was no consultation, there was no solutions provided. It'd be a different story here today if there was a solution provided with the withdrawal that says, you know what, sure there's economic activities that might hurt allottee but here's the solution. Here's some money, here's some dollars. Here's ways of developing your nation that will take you further into helping yourself.”