Zinke puts oil, gas lease sale near Chaco Canyon on hold

Amid considerable pushback to a planned oil and gas lease sale next week near Chaco Canyon, pictured, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has deferred action pending further study on possible cultural impacts from the sale. Courtesy James Q. Jacobs (jqjacobs.net/southwest/chaco.html)

Amid strong tribal, environmental and Congressional pushback to a planned oil and gas lease sale next week near Chaco Canyon, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has deferred action pending further study on possible cultural impacts from the sale.

“After hearing from Tribes, Senators Udall and Heinrich , historic preservation experts, and other stakeholders, I’ve decided to defer the sale,” Zinke said in a news release issued by the federal Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the lease areas. “I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study.”

The agency has received 120 protests against the sale.

Chaco was one of the nation’s first national monuments created under President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1906 Antiquities Act, meant to stop the plundering of ancient sites.

The BLM will now “complete an ongoing analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites in the proposed leasing area,” the agency said in deferring the planned March 8 sale.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park, operated by the National Park Service, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is a cradle of over 10,000 years of human cultural history evidenced by about 4,000 prehistoric and historic archaeological sites.

Environmentalist and Congressional reactions to the news were swift and definitive.

“I think it’s absolutely the right decision,” said Kyle Tisdel, an attorney and director of the climate and energy program for the Western Environmental Law Center in Taos. “There is clearly overwhelming public opposition to the leasing of those parcels.”

The center said in a statement it represents Navajo and other advocates in a lawsuit challenging BLM’s ongoing approval of leases in “Greater Chaco.”

“I commend Secretary Zinke for agreeing with the people of New Mexico and halting the proposed lease sale of the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., said in a statement. “This area holds much meaning to the Navajo Nation, whose lands surround the park, and New Mexico Pueblos who consider the sites sacred.”

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., issued a statement that said, “New Mexicans deserve a say in any proposed development on public lands in our state, especially when it is near sacred or culturally sensitive land. Secretary Zinke has previously assured me that he is committed to moving forward with the BLM and BIA’s cooperative approach to drafting a regional management plan for Northwestern New Mexico.”

U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Luján and Michelle Lujan Grisham, both New Mexico Democrats, also were encouraged by Zinke’s action.

A spokesman for the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association gave the decision a mixed review. “Every requirement under the law for lease sales should be met prior to a public sale,” Robert McEntyre said in a phone interview. “It’s disappointing for BLM to miss their own deadlines and targets. Deferred sales mean deferred revenues for our state and our schools.”

The proposed sale includes 25 parcels over 4,434 acres in Rio Arriba, Sandoval and San Juan counties. “The surface ownership of the proposed parcels includes private land (2,033 acres), BLM-managed public land (1,031 acres), and tribal trust land (1,370 acres — federal minerals only),” The BLM release states.

The remote, high-desert Chaco monument, located about 180 miles from Santa Fe, is an archaeological and natural oasis accessed via miles of a washboard dirt road. Visitors can often see coyotes wandering through campgrounds in the shadow of 16 “great houses” interpreted within the park. Chaco’s “great houses” are “the largest, best preserved, and most complex prehistoric architectural structures in North America,” according to the park’s website.

Secretary Zinke, in his statement, said he wants listen to local voices: “In this case, there is some concern about the proximity to Chaco of some of the leases and the uncertainty about cultural impacts.”

BLM New Mexico’s acting state director, Aden Seidlitz, said, “We understand the cultural importance of this area, and the need to gather additional information about this landscape before holding a lease sale. We will continue to work with consulting parties, including tribal and state governments, state and federal agencies and others, as we consider and analyze impacts of oil and gas leasing in the area.”

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

Contact Andy Stiny at 505-986-3007 or astiny@santafenewmexican.com.

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