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Chaco Culture National Historic Park

Chaco Cultural National Historic Park Area Oil and Gas Leases Under Review

Kim Baca

In an effort to address concerns about oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historic Park, the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs have expanded the review of the mineral management plan near the ancestral site in Northwest New Mexico.

The BLM’s Farmington Field Office and the BIA’s Navajo Regional Office are seeking public comment on a resource management plan that includes federal and tribal lands, marking the first collaboration between the two agencies.

Interior Deputy Secretary Michael Connor, who made the announcement on October 20, said the move was an important step in discussions about mineral development surrounding the prehistoric ruins named a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“I heard these concerns firsthand when I visited Chaco last summer to participate in a public listening session with Senator [Tom] Udall (D-NM),” Connor said in a release. “BIA’s decision to join BLM’s planning effort as a co-lead reflects the complex land tenure around the park and demonstrates the department’s commitment to ensuring that the region’s rich cultural and archaeological resources are protected.”

In March 2015, environmental groups, including the Navajo organization Diné CARE, filed suit against two federal agencies in an attempt to keep horizontal drilling technology and hydraulic fracturing or fracking from harming the ancient astronomical area, which is also listed as one of the world’s four Dark Sky Parks.

While there is relief about protecting Chaco, Lori Goodman of Diné CARE worries too much emphasis is being placed on protecting the ruin without general regard to those living in the area, especially after she said fracking caused an explosion between Nageezi and Counselor Chapter Houses in July. No injuries were reported but at least 50 people were evacuated. Goodman said when a resident returned to her home she was taken to the hospital because she got sick from what remained in the air after the explosion.

“Information like that doesn’t make news because it’s happening on Navajo [land],” Goodman said.

The Western Environmental Law Center, one of the groups suing the agencies, says an update to the agency’s management plan is urgently needed because BLM hasn’t analyzed new drilling technology. And after BLM deferred oil and gas leases in the area several times in the past year, the Law Center says that “illustrates the need for the agency to complete its ongoing resource management plan before authorizing any mineral the development for additional public lands.”  The BLM began updating its plan in 2014.

The San Juan Basin, which extends from northwest New Mexico into southwestern Colorado, is the second largest natural gas basins in the nation, according to the New Mexico Geological Society.

The Interior Department says this joint effort reflects the department’s emphasis on working with Native American leaders “to provide expanded opportunities for integrating traditional knowledge and expertise in the management of public lands that have a special historical, cultural or geographic connection with indigenous communities,” according to a release.

With its monumental architecture surrounded by sacred mountains and astronomical markers, Pueblo and Navajo descendants say Chaco was a special gathering place for ceremony.

The public comment period ends December 20. The agencies will also host meetings at Chapter Houses on the Navajo Nation starting November 10.

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