Does Energy Trump Heritage in the Four Corners

Kirk Johnson of the New York Times has an excellent article about a disheartening subject: the threat energy projects pose to Native American heritage in the West. Its a familiar story: not enough funding for surveys and archaeological research, pressures from development and expanding populations, plus the problem of illegal looting.

Above is a picture from the piece, of Chimney Rock Archaeological Area. Federal land managers are forced to make difficult judgment calls, considering using portions of funds for energy development to help safeguard and protect sites.

As the piece notes, “A spokesman for the Independent Petroleum Association of America, which represents drilling companies, described helping defend historical sites as good for business, especially if financing volunteers created more contact and understanding between local residents and energy explorers.”

That seems like a big lump to swallow and a dangerous compromise of heritage values. I’m highly skeptical of this kind of give and take, though perhaps some with more understanding of specific cases might offer some kind of hope for this kind of compromise. Consider that “[t]he Forest Service, for example, using research at Chimney Rock that suggests the place was chosen by the Anasazi at least partly for its vantage point of the San Juan Mountains and river valley below, recently decided that a big natural gas drilling project just a mile or so away must not be visible from the rock.” Wow, one would have thought that would have been a no-brainer.

Also at risk is the 2,000 year-old rock art in Nine Mile Canyon (previously discussed here); in Montana, a coal-fired power plant has been proposed near “one of the last wild sections of the Lewis and Clark trail”; and in New Mexico a uranium mine has been proposed on a national forest site sacred to Native American tribes.

It’s a disheartening story, which indicates I think how much more effort and advocacy is needed. Strict criminal penalties are in place for looting of sites, and there are even nimble civil fines which can quickly punish looters. But heritage policy does not start and stop with looting, it also requires funding, and good policy solutions. Sadly many of those appear to be lacking in the American West, despite some notable heroic eforts

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

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