The federal government is proposing to lease land for oil and gas drilling outside Chaco Culture National Historical Park later this year, just a few months after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke scrapped plans to lease other lands in the area amid opposition from tribes and environmentalists.
At the time, Zinke said he would defer those leases until his administration could “do some cultural consultation.”
But conservationists say the government has not undertaken any additional study despite mounting calls for an outright moratorium on drilling in an area that is particularly significant to the history of New Mexico’s indigenous people.
“It is unacceptable for Secretary Zinke to pay lip service to the need for cultural review and consultation while still charging ahead with plans to auction off this sacred landscape to the fossil fuel industry,” Miya King-Flaherty of the Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter said in a statement.
Aides to Zinke, who briefly visited New Mexico earlier this week for a speech that was closed to the media, did not respond to questions for this story.
But he told the Albuquerque Journal earlier this year: “My job is to make sure that the local voices are heard and the state and national interests are reflected.
“In this case, there is some concern about the proximity to Chaco of some of the leases and the uncertainty about cultural impacts,” he is quoted as telling the newspaper.
Zinke noted the areas slated for the scuttled March lease sale — about 4,400 acres in all — were well outside the park itself.
But drilling in the area has long been a point of contention.
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation in May effectively proposing a moratorium on future oil and gas development on federal land within a roughly 10-mile radius of the park.
The bill, the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act, also has the backing of Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, who said at the time that “any disturbance to this area is culturally and morally unacceptable.”
Pieces of the more than 98,000 acres the federal government announced this month it will put up for lease in December are within that 10-mile buffer zone the bill would create. Environmentalists argue the Bureau of Land Management, which owns the properties, has not completed studies of how oil and gas drilling would impact the area.
About 45,000 acres fall within what conservationists call the Greater Chaco area. All of this is in the midst of a hub for the natural gas industry, and most of the federal lands in the area already have been leased for drilling, including several areas the Navajo Nation says overlap with important historic sites around Chaco. The lands immediately around Chaco Canyon are some of the last untapped parts of the area.
On Wednesday, Udall said the Zinke, after deferring the earlier lease sale, had committed to conducting consultations. The Democrat raised concerns that the Department of Interior and the Bureau of Land Management are “failing to heed their commitments to conduct meaningful Tribal consultation and take public input into account with this scheduled December lease sale and the little opportunity for public comment.”
Oil and gas production has been a pillar of the Four Corners economy. And the state government receives a cut of oil and gas produced on federal lands in New Mexico.
The Bureau of Land Management has extended the public input period through Friday.
Meanwhile, conservationists are appealing a federal court decision earlier this year that threw out claims the government did not follow the National Historic Preservation Act in approving leases in the Chaco area.
And while Udall and Heinrich’s bill is unlikely to gain traction in a Republican Senate, activists are likely to push for yet a bigger buffer that protects more than just the federal lands in the checkerboard area around Chaco.