Tribes ask feds to halt drilling leases in Chaco region

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon in 2014. The All Pueblo Council of Governors, in a resolution signed last week, said it is asking the BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs to halt any further drilling leases and permits in northwestern New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Region. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Leaders of a dozen New Mexico pueblos are asking the federal government to stop all new oil and gas development near sacred sites surrounding the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, following the recent announcement of a preliminary plan by the Bureau of Land Management to lease thousands of acres in the region in early 2018.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors, in a resolution signed last week, said it is asking the BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs to halt any further drilling leases and permits in northwestern New Mexico’s Greater Chaco Region, generally defined as the land lying within at least a 10-mile radius of the national park, as well as other areas holding cultural significance between the tiny Navajo communities of White Rock and Nageezi in San Juan County.

The moratorium is crucial, the resolution says, to preserve sacred archaeological sites, protect views and maintain the darkness of the night sky at Chaco, deemed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its vast collection of ancient ruins.

The action comes a little over a month after a BLM official informed the Navajo Nation that the federal government intended to lease 4,800 acres in the Chaco area in a March 2018 sale. Victoria Barr, district manager of the BLM’s Farmington field office, said in a letter to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye that as part of the Trump administration’s push for energy independence, the agency plans to lease 26 parcels in the region, many of which lie within 20 miles of the park.

According to a map of the proposed lease sites, some appear to be much closer.

Edward Paul Torres, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said in a statement Wednesday, “Our ancestors still reside in this place, and these new permits and leases demonstrate a complete lack of respect for our sovereign tribal nations. We will use every tool at our disposal to fight these attacks on our heritage.”

New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegates also have weighed in on the drilling lease plans, urging Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in a letter early this month, to refrain from allowing extraction near Chaco. And last week, archaeologists asked the federal government to make permanent a temporary 10-mile buffer zone around the park where drilling would be banned.

Heather Swift, a spokeswoman for the Interior Department, and Donna Hummel, a spokeswoman for the BLM in New Mexico, said Wednesday that the agencies would consider the pueblo governors’ concerns.

The Greater Chaco Region, considered an epicenter of Southwestern tribal heritage, has been the subject of brewing controversy for some time, pitting the interests of Native people and environmentalists against the federal government and the fossil fuels industry.

Environmentalists have said further drilling should not move forward until a management plan for the region has been completed, specifically to analyze how hydraulic fracturing, or fracking — an extraction technique that uses high-pressure injection of fluids into underground rock layers — might impact the sensitive archaeological sites.

The BLM is updating a management plan for the area that was first created in 2003 and expects a new draft to be completed by late 2018 — months after the March lease sale.

Residents in the region have said during protests and in public comments to the Interior Department that existing oil and gas operations have destroyed roadways, created noise and permeated the area with foul odors, causing headaches and asthma for those who live closest to drilling sites.

Still, the BLM increasingly has allowed oil and gas development to continue.

The agency leased 843 acres for fracking within 19 miles of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in January 2016, despite an outcry.

Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said the industry has “always supported preserving this cultural treasure for our future generations.”

But, he said, “The Bureau of Land Management has established a process to engage stakeholders in a review of the region’s Resource Management Plan for federal lands. We respect the process established by BLM and believe it should continue.”

Rebecca Sobel, with the Santa Fe-based nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, said the BLM has consistently failed to heed tribal leaders’ concerns.

“On more than one occasion,” she said, “Pueblo and Navajo leadership has formally requested the Bureau of Land Management stop rubber-stamping industrialized fracking development without a comprehensive plan to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas extraction.

“As Trump, Zinke and the Bureau of Land Management break their promises in Greater Chaco,” Sobel continued, “drilling closer and closer to Chaco Canyon, it’s clear that in the face of the oil and gas industry’s demands, there is nothing sacred.”

Contact Rebecca Moss at 505-986-3011 or rmoss@sfnewmexican.com.

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