Biden Announces Actions to Preserve Tribal Lands

President Joe Biden announced at the White House Tribal Nations Summit Monday new plans to protect tribal lands. Actions include creating the Tribal Homelands Initiative, which will strengthen tribal co-stewardship of public lands and waters, and barring new federal oil and gas leasing around a sacred Native American cultural site in New Mexico. 

The Tribal Homelands Initiative, created by the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture, ensures that all decisions related to the federal stewardship of land, water, and wildlife include safeguarding the interests of Native Americans through consultation with tribal governments, according to a Department of the Interior press release.

“‘We are committed to the values of equity and inclusion rooted in justice and equal opportunity for those we serve,’” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in the press release. “‘Shared stewardship of land management is a priority for USDA, and an important part of our responsibility to tribal nations. Management challenges like extreme wildfires, severe drought and invasive species do not recognize borders or boundary lines. Through shared stewardship, USDA Forest Service is coming together with tribal governments, states and other partners to address these challenges and explore opportunities to improve forest health and resiliency.’”

The Departments of the Interior and Agriculture are responsible for the management of millions of acres of land and water that were previously owned by Indian tribes. These areas contain cultural and natural resources of significance to Native Americans, including sacred religious sites, burial sites, wildlife, and sources of Indigenous foods and medicines. Indian tribes have reserved the right to hunt, fish and pray in many of these areas pursuant to ratified treaties and agreements with the United States. Both Departments affirmed Monday that the United States’ trust and treaty obligations are an integral part of their responsibilities in managing federal lands, the press release stated. 

In addition, the Bureau of Land Management will initiate consideration of a 20-year withdrawal of federal lands within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico, barring new federal oil and gas leasing on the land, a Department of the Interior press release stated.

“‘Chaco Canyon is a sacred place that holds deep meaning for the Indigenous peoples whose ancestors lived, worked and thrived in that high desert community,’” Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said in the press release. “‘Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations. I value and appreciate the many Tribal leaders, elected officials and stakeholders who have persisted in their work to conserve this special area.’”

Chaco Canyon, located in the high desert of northwest New Mexico, served as the center of the Chacoan culture for roughly 400 years from 850-1250. Some of the canyon is protected by Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, one of only two dozen sites in the United States, according to the Department of the Interior. 

The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs will co-lead discussions with tribes and interested parties beginning in early 2022 to explore how the Department of the Interior can manage existing energy development, honor areas important to tribes and build collaborative management frameworks toward a sustainable economic future for the Chaco region. This work builds on years of efforts to protect the greater Chaco Canyon area: Congress most recently instituted a one-year pause on new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius of the park, as well as appropriated funding for ethnographic studies in the surrounding region. The withdrawal process under consideration will be informed by the ongoing ethnographic studies, the press release stated.