A rush to exploit natural resources on federal lands could have devastating consequences for New Mexico’s cultural treasures.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs are currently reviewing leases on land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park in an attempt to plan how best to manage and protect both the site and the surrounding land. Unfortunately, despite earlier BLM promises to defer all leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Canyon for the time being, the agency has begun the process of leasing land — inside the 10-mile zone. That, before all tribal consultation and community outreach is complete.

As both Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján, also a Democrat, have reminded Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke: “This action would not only violate the previous commitment of the BLM and BIA, but the spirit of the ongoing joint public process which these agencies are conducting with the community.”

Until it is better understood what drilling for oil and gas — including the use of the fracking process — might do to the irreplaceable archaeology of Chaco Canyon, these leases should not go forward. There is no need to put aside work on the Resource Management Plan Amendment for the San Juan Basis, a joint review by the BLM Farmington Field Office and BIA Navajo Regional Office, in a rush to lease out land. This type of cooperative work is exactly what federal land managers should be doing.

Tribes, including the Navajo Nation and several pueblos, have long-standing links to the area — their concerns need to be addressed, both from a cultural and practical standpoint. Destruction of sacred sites must be prevented. It also is necessary to prevent pollution of water and land. Both the Navajo Nation and All Pueblo Council of Governors are asking for the leases to be deferred as promised.

However, according to an Aug. 16 letter from BLM district manager Victoria Barr to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye, the Farmington office is planning to lease 26 parcels of land, just under 4,800 acres, in the greater Chaco region during a March sale. Although Barr wrote that the parcels are at least 10 miles from the park, a map of the parcels shows that some sites are within the 10-mile radius. She justified the leasing as being “in accordance with the president’s policy of Making America Safe Through Energy Independence.”

This push to drill around Chaco Canyon is part of the Trump Administration’s desire for greater exploitation of the nation’s public lands. Zinke wants his department to speed up permits for federal and oil and gas leases — our resources are for sale, and quickly, in other words.

That is lamentable, but nowhere more so in an area that is sacred to so many Native people. As the congressional delegation wrote in its letter to Zinke: “The park itself, but also the greater Chaco area, contains ancient Puebloan roads, kivas, sacred sites, artifacts and great mysteries regarding the people who inhabited Chaco.”

A sacred space is not the proper place for aggressive drilling for oil and gas. The buffer zone is essential to protect the legacy of Chaco Canyon. There are plenty of other places for the oil and gas industry to drill. Putting America first does not require destroying ancient America — and if the Trump administration does not agree, then tribes, activists and all concerned people will have to fight this.

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