A high point on the Pueblo Alto Trail at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a climb of more than 300 feet, offers a view of landscape scattered with purple-brown brush and carved with ancestral Puebloan ruins. It is here where ancient tribal roads converge and where hikers travel for an unobstructed view of the night sky.
It is also from this vantage point, conservationists say, that oil and gas operations might be visible if the federal government proceeds with its plans to lease land in late March for extraction within a 10-mile radius of the national park.
Visitors at the northwestern New Mexico site, a canyon that holds the remnants of monumental pre-Columbian structures sacred to Southwestern tribes, “would hear it, they would smell it,” said Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, a Tucson, Ariz.-based nonprofit. “That would be the worst kind of degradation.”
Reed is among numerous conservationists and tribal members who have spent years working with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs to attempt to preserve the area from oil and gas development. They argue the park is surrounded by ancestral Puebloan cultural sites that deserve a wide berth and that federal land managers have not studied how modern oil and gas extraction techniques would impact this sensitive geography. They have called for a buffer zone around the park with a radius of at least 10 miles.
In 2017, the National Congress of American Indians requested a drilling moratorium for the area.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced legislation in May that would have put a moratorium on future oil and gas development on federal land within a 10-mile radius of the park, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A revised land management plan for the region has been pending since 2012. Opponents of the upcoming sale say no leases should proceed until the document is finalized.
But the Bureau of Land Management says it is required to offer federal mineral rights for lease on a quarterly basis, and the plots surrounding the national park will be among those up for sale March 28.
Parcels will be leased in Rio Puerco, Farmington and Carlsbad, as well as in Oklahoma.
The date, pushed back by a couple of weeks because of the federal government shutdown, will allow time for a public protest period that begins Feb. 11.
Cathy Garber, a spokeswoman for the BLM, said a detailed list of the parcels will be available next week and that the list “can still change up until the day before the sale.”
The controversial parcels near Chaco could be removed from the list “if whatever issue is brought up is not addressed before the sale,” she said.
Throughout January, environmental groups and Democrats criticized the Trump administration for proceeding with plans for the sale despite the shutdown.
“One of the most striking features” of the shutdown, House Democrats wrote in a Jan. 16 letter to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, “is the way the administration has bent over backward to ensure that the pain of the shutdown falls only on ordinary Americans and the environment, and not on the oil and gas industry.”
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, said Thursday that the Trump administration failed to consult with Native Americans on the lease sale during the government shutdown.
“The administration is proposing to lease indigenous lands sacred to our people,” said Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo. “I have long opposed drilling in this area, as has the All Pueblo Council of Governors, who I met with today.”
Democrats said the administration gave the oil and gas industry special treatment during the shutdown by classifying certain Interior Department officials involved in lease sales as essential personnel.
Udall also criticized the administration’s handling of the lease sale, saying in an email Thursday, “It’s a mistake that while critical public services were shuttered for 35 days … BLM still moved forward with this opaque process to once again attempt to lease potentially culturally-significant and fragile land near Chaco Canyon for development. BLM leadership needs to listen to and consult with public and Tribal voices with historical ties to this land.”
Udall intends to reintroduce his bill protecting a wider swath of land around Chaco from development by establishing a “heritage withdrawal area.”
Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, called the outcry a “political charade,” saying federal law requires environmental review.
“For decades, New Mexico has safely produced oil and natural gas in the San Juan Basin while protecting cultural and historic treasures,” he said. “We can continue to do both at the same time.”
Several lease sales in the region have been proposed around Chaco Canyon in recent years but have been canceled or postponed amid ongoing public protest.