CLAREMONT, Calif. – The falcon flew low and fast over Strawberry Rock, an outcropping high above the Rio Brazos Valley, just east of Chama, New Mexico.

We were sharing a picnic with good friends in a pine copse rooted in rough sandstone and marveling over the clear blue horizon, when the small raptor shot past; its backswept wings and breakneck speed were its only identifiable features.

As it stretched out and banked west, the falcon’s swift form was highlighted against the quartzite face of the Brazos Cliffs, glowing in the midday sun; it then hurtled down the dark green valley, following the silvery flow west toward the Rio Chama.

That shutter-click of a moment seemed suspended in time. Like our vacation, a lifting up and out, a release.

Yet at some point the falcon had to wing home, and so did we, though our pace was a bit more sedate. A day later we were rolling along U.S. 64 across northwestern New Mexico, straight through the state’s oil-and-gas patch in the San Juan River watershed.

Char Miller
Char Miller

The region contains the nation’s second largest gas reserves, a play that has gone through a series of booms and busts since the 1920s, but it has been experiencing a decline of late. The small towns along our route bear the marks of this economic withering — idled rigs, banged up pickups, pitted roadbeds, and dusty stores with little on the shelves. Even the relatively bustling Farmington, which received a substantial infusion of American Reinvestment and Recovery Act dollars to repave an extensive portion of U.S. 64, has not been able to generate enough new work to break out of its doldrums.

That’s why so many are looking for salvation in two words: Mancos Shale. The formation, which extends from New Mexico into portions of Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming, is buried about a mile beneath the surface. Estimated to contain upwards of six billion barrels of oil, approximately one-third of which lies within New Mexico, the untapped resource is being touted as a godsend for the recession-hit area.

At a March 2013 conference on this deposit’s tantalizing possibilities, T. Greg Merrion, president of Merrion Oil and Gas, exulted: “I’m bullish on the Mancos, we’ve already seen a number of wells drilled that are economic. I’m looking forward to this next boom.” Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici was just as giddy: “These are happy times again.”

Don’t break out the bunting quite so quickly. It might be years before energy companies are convinced that they can profitably extract oil and gas through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques that have been responsible for the explosive productivity in the Eagle Ford play in south Texas, the Baaken in South Dakota, and the Marcellus in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. It will take time, too, for the Bureau of Land Management to develop the requisite environmental impact assessments for air and water quality. And should the run begin, its proponents will have to contend with an energized and skeptical citizenry unconvinced that the boom’s economic benefits will outweigh its social costs and environmental deficits.

One of the flashpoints already has been identified — Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Although a number of other parks are under threat, including the Delaware Water Gap, and Theodore Roosevelt, Yellowstone, and Glacier national parks, Chaco Culture is particularly vulnerable. It encompasses the largest site of Chacoan ruins, which date back at least a millennium and contain a remarkable set of masonry structures that served its inhabitants as a ritual, ceremonial, and communal center for 300 years or so. Pueblo Bonito, for instance, is thought to have been the world’s largest apartment building housing upwards of 1,300 people, a size not eclipsed until the late 1880s.

The first step in conserving these edifices occurred in March 1907: President Theodore Roosevelt used his authority under the Antiquities Act, adopted the year before, to throw the mantel of federal protection over the archaeological marvels. They are “of extraordinary interest because of their number and their great size,” the official proclamation reads, “and because of the innumerable and valuable relics of a prehistoric people which they contain, and it appears that the public good would be promoted by preserving these prehistoric remains as a National Monument.”

Like many of the other sites of American antiquity that Roosevelt and his immediate successors denoted as national monuments, Chaco Culture had been looted and vandalized. The depredations there and elsewhere were so egregious that they led archaeologists, anthropologists, and concerned citizens to pressure Congress to pass what became the Antiquities Act.

Unfortunately, the new law did not stop the pilfering of these prehistoric gems, as there was no consistent management and policing of the area until the National Park Service, which was not founded until 1916, took over responsibility for Chaco Culture and its peer parks. Even then, a lax form of what historian Hal K. Rothman calls “Warning Sign” preservationism prevailed until the 1930s when the southwestern national monuments experienced more sustained oversight.

Chaco Culture received increased renown in 1987 after UNESCO tapped it as a World Heritage Site, praising its builders’ achievements: “The Chaco people combined pre-planned architectural designs, astronomical alignments, geometry, landscaping and engineering to create an ancient urban center of spectacular public architecture.”

Sensitive preservation of the surviving portions of this sprawling complex is a real challenge under ordinary circumstances — the footprints of even the most respectful visitors can compromise the site’s archaeological integrity. Now the earthen remnants of this ancient civilization face a much greater threat due to the unsettling reality that they overlie the Mancos Shale formation.

Since the turn of this century, the BLM has been actively engaged with energy companies scouring the San Juan basin for untapped reservoirs of oil and gas. In 2008-09 — and not for the first time — it offered leases on eight parcels totaling 10,000 acres near Chaco Culture, only to pull them off the table when the Hopi challenged the offering. Late last year the BLM revived the stalled project, an announcement that raised another hue and cry. Tribal authorities, local environmental groups such as the Chaco Alliance, and the National Parks Conservation Association weighed in. In the face of this concerted opposition, the agency once more withdrew the leases from auction.

No one expects this to be the final clash over the energy locked deep beneath Chaco Culture; it has a competing value that will lead to future wrangles, perhaps as soon as January 2014 when the BLM announces the next round of lease-auctions.

Yet the political context in which these debates over the national park’s fate will occur is shifting, and dramatically so. Across the state, more communities and counties are responding to deep-seated worries about the inimical impact of fracking on public health and on the sacred lands and cultural resources that define this Land of Enchantment.

A newspaper box offered my first clue to the extent of the opposition. Stopping in Bloomfield to stretch our legs and gas up — yes, the irony is inescapable — I peered through the scratched Plexiglas to read the front page of the Farmington Daily Times. It contained a major story about the ongoing controversy surrounding Chaco Culture and a quick search online brought up similar stories from other New Mexican towns such as Las Vegas; since 2012, it has been battling over the legality of prohibiting fracking within the city’s limits.

County commissioners have been busy, too. Worried about the damage that hydraulic fracturing will do to local groundwater in this arid land, and responding to the mounting evidence that this explosive technique has been responsible for the sharp uptick in earthquakes in the region, Mora County instituted an outright ban against fracking in May, becoming the first county in the nation to institute a permanent injunction. Citizens and politicians in Colfax and Santa Fe counties are contemplating what actions they might take, and San Miguel County has had a moratorium on fracking for several years.

Grassroots organizing against and community ordinances aimed at stymying the power of mega-corporations and their political minions are inevitably tough battles. The difficulties will only intensify should the Mancos Shale formation come under rapid exploitation.

But I also wouldn’t bet against those defending one of the spiritual epicenters of the southwest’s ancient life and fighting to protect their right, and that of succeeding generations, to drink pure water and breathe clean air.

Galvanic and proactive, these activists’ declaration of an alternative vision of homeland security is also a daring act of imagination — every bit as riveting as a fleet falcon in flight.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including “Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy.” His columns appear regularly in the Guardian. The above op-ed first appeared on the website.