by Brenda Norrell,
with author's permission
ALBUQUERQUE – Sacred lands of the West became further
endangered as the Bush administration pressed for approval of a record
number of new oil and gas drilling permits in the West, targeting unspoiled
pristine wildernesses, including the Rocky Mountain region.
The Environmental Working Group, a consumer watchdog group,
released a comprehensive report of oil and gas leases in the West, showing
many American Indian sacred places have been targeted.
Other sites, never been reclaimed from mining, already
have trails of uranium tailings, scarred lands, tainted waterways and
After taking office, the Bush administration developed
a task force to facilitate industry requests and fast track requests
for oil and gas drilling. Now, the Bureau of Land Management has increased
drilling permits by 70 percent since the Clinton administration.
Bahe Katenay, Navajo from Big Mountain, Ariz., said oil
and gas drilling is violating Navajos’ most sacred region, the
Dine’ place of origin and place of the Creation legend, near present
day Bloomfield, N.M.
“Gas reserves are drilled in places where White
Shell Woman was found by Talking God and places where she did her Kinalda
“Places where the Twin Warrior Gods made their
divine deeds are also desecrated with drilling, piping, wells and recreation
activities. The Dine’ have lost these lands and their ‘puppet’
tribal government have refused to fight for a claim to this area,”
Katenay point out that sacred land is being violated while
many Navajos haul propane tanks in the backs of their trucks for fuel
to cook with. “What would the Christians do if their Holy Lands
were dotted with natural gas pumping stations and strands of pipelines
crisscrossed everywhere?” Katenay asked.
“Then to make things worst, what if these gas reserves
were illegally tapped with permission from a puppet government that
is made up of their own people. Finally, how would they feel if these
natural resources were being bought off cheap from their nation, exported
away to another country and none made available for their use?
“To the Dine', this has happened when our Holy Lands
were made available to gas companies in northwestern New Mexico in a
region known to us as Dinetah.
“Today, several major gas pipelines are routed out
towards southern California. Many Dine’ of course have to pay
for the natural gas or propane from companies that desecrate their Holy
Lands. Many Dine' household do not receive piping so they haul their
propane bottles to the local markets to get them filled.”
Katenay said the place of Dine’ origin, Dinetah
in northwestern New Mexico, still holds ancient archaeological sites
and a large portion of the creation stories related to all geographical
features of that area. Energy development threatens the Navajos’
Four Sacred Mountains, located in the region from Flagstaff, Ariz.,
southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, he said.
“I travel from Black Mesa to these areas when I
can. I am disturbed every time I come back to my Holy Land. I see new
drilling and new roads that scar the wooded mesas and buttes. I always
wonder if the Spirits of our Creators are still alive there. Despite
this, I still get a sense of healing when I look upon Gobernador Knob
or Huerfano Mesa and its surrounding canyonlands.
“But I am also saddened when I think that, because
these lands were given away for profit, the rest of our sacred lands
everywhere are< being desecrated, today: Mount Taylor, San Francisco
Mountains, and Big Mountain.”
Navajo President Joe Shirley, in a letter to the Bureau
of Land Management, urged the agency to halt oil and gas drilling in
the Four Corners region near the Navajo place of origin.
"Because of their significance to Diné life,
any desecration through oil and gas drilling on or near the two mountains
will have a devastating effect on Navajo beliefs,” Shirley said.
The Environmental Working Group’s new report shows
the federal government has offered 27.9 million acres of public and
private land in New Mexico for oil and gas drilling. New Mexico ranks
second among 12 western states for lands currently leased and second
for the amount of land currently producing oil and gas.
San Juan County, the Dine’ place of origin, is among
the top three counties targeted, along with Eddy and Lea counties, according
to the new report.
Navajos living in nearby San Juan County in southeastern
Utah have long< protested the saturation of oil and gas wells around
their homes. Navajo Councilman Mark Maryboy of Aneth, Utah, and other
Utah Navajos have long argued that the Navajo Nation returns little
profit to Navajos living in desperate conditions in the Utah portion
of tribal land.
Utah Navajo allegations of corruption within the U.S.
Interior gained support from an Interior whistleblower in 2003. Kevin
Gambrell, head of the Farmington, N.M., Indian Minerals Office since
1996, entered complaints for six years that Navajo landowners were not
receiving fair compensation for the use of their land.
After receiving no response, he contacted Alan Balaran,
an investigator appointed by the federal judge presiding in the Cobell
v. Norton lawsuit, alleging billions in missing dollars for land use
Balaran’s report said private landowners near the
Navajo Nation were paid up to 20 times what Navajos were paid for leases.
Gambrell was fired after reporting that Navajos, many
of whom do not speak English, were given blank leases to sign by oil
and gas companies. These were leases to build pipelines across tribal
land.Navajo leaders were told the companies would fill in the lease
rates later. Gambrell said it resulted in the loss of millions of dollars
The Interior Department did not respond to the allegations
of collusion with energy corporations and the federal lawsuit, Cobell.
v. Norton, is ongoing.
Pristine land in the Four Corners region, however, is
not the only land targeted for new oil and gas drilling. Energy companies
are vying for oil and gas leases in the most pristine regions of the
Rocky Mountains, where bears, wolves and elk attract travelers. In Wyoming,
herds of pronghorn antelope are on the run from oil and gas development.
In Montana, oil and gas leases threaten Badger-Two Medicine,
sacred ground of the Blackfeet. In Colorado, 1,000-year-old petroglyphs
are threatened in Vermillion Basin. In Utah, oil and gas leases have
been issued for Book Cliffs, Desolation Canyon and Fisher Towers, with
ancient burial grounds.
Wyoming and Montana’s Powder River Basin are also
targeted. The 14 million acres are surrounded by the Bighorn Mountains
in the West, the Black Hills in the east, Montana's Cedar Ridge in the
north, and Wyoming's Laramie Mountains, Casper arch and Hartville Uplift
in the South.
Since 1997, the Basin has also been the site of intensive
coal bed methane production and has recently become the most active
area in the country for gas development.
The Environmental Working Group points out campaign dollars
play a role. Between 2000 and 2004, the oil and gas industry poured
more than $75 million into political campaigns, with 79 percent going
“Despite access to more than 200 million acres of
public land over the past 15 years (1989-2003), the oil and gas industry
has produced enough energy from this land to satisfy only 53 days of
U.S. oil consumption and 221 days of natural gas consumption,”
according to EWG's analysis of well-by-well oil and gas production records
obtained August 16 2004 via a Freedom of Information Act Request.
The report states that drilling on federal lands in the
West has done nothing to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign
energy. In fact, since 1982, the U.S. dependence on foreign oil has
doubled and dependence on foreign natural gas has tripled.