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The great kiva of Chetro Ketl at Chaco Canyon. Fracking is creeping ever closer to the sacred site.

Fracking Versus Ancient Astronomy in Chaco Canyon

Frances Madeson

In what could be a win for consultation, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has postponed an oil and gas lease sale on land near Chaco Canyon so as to consult with the nearly two dozen tribes that hold the region sacred.

Four parcels totaling approximately 843 acres are being proposed as drilling sites by the BLM. Located just 15 miles from the ruins of an 11th-century ceremonial great house—a three-story building that encloses a plaza and four kivas, and is surrounded by 14 buried kivas and a great kiva—the parcels are set to be included in an oil and gas lease sale to be held by the BLM on January 18, 2017.

RELATED: Fracking Operations Creep Ever Closer to Ancient Astronomical Wonder Chaco Canyon

Three of these parcels near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a World Heritage Site, had been slated to be sold at the BLM’s October 2016 lease sale (now canceled), but were withdrawn to pursue analysis pursuant to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and consultation with the 22 pueblos in New Mexico, as well as with the Navajo Nation, Hopi and Jicarilla Apache, who are all deemed to have an interest in Chaco’s preservation.

“The consultation process is ongoing,” confirmed Rick Fields, the BLM’s Farmington, New Mexico, field office manager. “But like in any nation-to-nation diplomacy, we don’t reveal the details of who we speak to and what was said.”

The BLM has hired Lola Henio, a new tribal program coordinator fluent in Diné with capacity in Tewa language, to act as a liaison.

“She’ll help facilitate a comprehensive consultation that exceeds the letter of the law in a culturally sensitive way,” said BLM spokesperson Donna Hummel. “There’s a lot of optimism not only about doing the tribal consultation, but doing it right.”

At least one of those opposed to the sale saw an encouraging sign in the delay.

“This is the first time that tribal consultation has been used as a reason for a postponement,” noted Rebecca Sobel, climate and energy senior campaigner for Wild Earth Guardians, a conservation group.

Meanwhile, a legal battle continues to unfold in the federal court’s 10th Circuit to stop extraction in the greater Chaco area and prevent the sale of the lease parcels closest to Chaco Canyon from heading to the auction block next January. On March 8, almost a year since the Western Environmental Law Center filed suit on behalf of environmental groups, including the Navajo organization Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment (DinéCARE), against two federal agencies in an attempt to keep frackers from drilling in Chaco Canyon, plaintiff’s attorneys were back in Denver arguing their case for protecting Chaco.

RELATED: Groups File Suit to Protect Chaco Canyon From Fracking

“For too long, the San Juan Basin has been a sacrifice zone for fossil fuels,” said Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, executive director of the Western Environmental Law Center, in a statement about the litigation.

The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association would not comment about fracking in proximity to Chaco Canyon. Acting Superintendent Aaron Adams of the Chaco National Historical Park did not answer queries by press time as to how the park plans to protect its archeological treasures from the potential effects of drilling.

“Fracking in the Basin's Greater Chaco Landscape is only the latest injustice committed on the lands, waters and peoples of this region,” Schlenker-Goodrich said. “BLM concedes that it has never planned for this development yet continues to authorize yet more and more fracking permits. This case seeks to put a halt to BLM's incoherent position and to thereby halt multistage, horizontal fracking. If we win, it'll create space for a dialogue about keeping fossil fuels in the ground and investing in a just transition of the region toward clean energy.”

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