U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and tribal leaders on Friday denounced the Trump administration’s plans to move ahead with public comments on a plan that would guide oil and gas extraction near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Udall, D-N.M., called the federal Bureau of Land Management’s planned virtual public meetings during the pandemic “tone deaf and out of touch” as indigenous people in New Mexico reel from an explosion of novel coronavirus cases.
While Native Americans constitute roughly 10 percent of New Mexico’s population, they account for 53 percent of the state’s confirmed cases of the virus. Meanwhile, large portions of Native American territory in the state still lack broadband internet access.
“This is an unprecedented public health crisis … and you can’t jump on a nonexistent broadband link when you’re in much of this area, so I just find this very, very disturbing that [the Department of] Interior would move forward,” Udall said.
Udall and some tribal leaders in the state have asked the Trump administration for a 120-day extension on offering public comments on the proposed drilling plan, which could guide how oil and gas development near the Chaco park takes place for more than a decade.
Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. Michael Chavarria, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said he was “shocked and dismayed” to learn that BLM is going forward with public comments during the coronavirus outbreak.
Calling the Chaco area an “irreplaceable landscape, sacred to the pueblos and other tribes,” Chavarria said they “cannot participate in meaningful consultation” while pouring all efforts into containing the epidemic.
But William Perry Pendley, BLM’s deputy director for policy and programs, has defended the virtual meetings. He said they help reduce the agency’s carbon footprint and allow more people to offer public comments without having to travel.
“We are excited to be able to use technology to meet the requirements of federal law that we engage and involve the American public in our decision-making process, especially as to such an important resource management plan,” he said in a Wednesday statement, the Associated Press reported.
Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered sacred land by tribes.
The first meeting on the BLM plan is scheduled for May 14 and will be streamed on social media. Four more meetings will follow.