The 20 Pueblo nations of New Mexico and Texas have joined nationwide and statewide COVID-19 response efforts. At the direction of leadership, Pueblo governments continue prioritizing and maximizing staffing capacity toward critical community health and safety measures in coordination with a host of state and federal agencies, the New Mexico congressional delegation and many other local and national organizations.
Yet despite the ongoing crisis, the Department of Interior is continuing land planning processes across the West, including the sacred cultural landscape of the Greater Chaco Region. On Feb. 28, the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office and Bureau of Indian Affairs Navajo Regional Office released a draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and draft Environmental Impact Statement, triggering a 90-day public comment period ending May 28.
Recently, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the New Mexico congressional delegation sent letters to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt urging extension and reassessment of the Department of Interior’s May 28 deadline by at least 120 days. A strong local and united voice of environmental, archaeological and conservation groups have also joined the effort, calling for suspension of the planning process and deadline extension.
In our request, the council of governors asked Interior officials to acknowledge the detrimental impact the health emergency is having on pueblos’ and other tribes’ ability to meaningfully engage in tribal consultations as part of federal requirements in the Greater Chaco Region planning process. The growing COVID-19 pandemic has significantly reduced the ability of the the council, its member pueblos, other tribes and other stakeholders to fully engage in the planning process and ensure protection for the ancestral Pueblo landscape across Greater Chaco.
The governors also noted the health emergency’s impact on public involvement opportunities at resource management plan meetings, including limits caused by state and federal implementation of mitigation strategies such as social distancing.
In addressing the current crisis, many pueblos and tribes have closed nonessential tribal government operations and redirected time and resources to providing urgent emergency and community services. For many, this means staff directly working on federal administrative land planning processes, including Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and environmental department staff, are unavailable.
Despite the growing health emergency, the Department of Interior has thus far not formally responded to requests to extend the planning process deadlines and has continued to hold scheduled calls associated with its Resource Management Plan Amendment process. In lieu of in-person meetings, BLM and BIA officials have scheduled conference calls and “virtual” meetings to continue the planning process.
Bluntly put, these long-distance substitutions are not adequate and do not fulfill meaningful consultation as required by multiple federal statutes, directives and the federal trust responsibility to our tribal nations. The trust relationship between the U.S. government and tribes requires face-to-face contact and ongoing communication.
Additionally, the National Environmental Policy Act mandates public meetings as part of Interior’s planning processes for both the resources management plan and the Environmental Impact Statement.
The National Environmental Policy Act also requires adequate notice prior to the scheduling of public meetings. At this point, then, it seems unlikely that the required public meetings can be scheduled and held prior to the May 28 deadline. It is clear to us as Pueblo leaders that the responsible decision is to suspend the current planning processes and extend the May 28 deadline until at least Sept. 28.