Zinke Cancels Chaco Canyon lease sale

Tourists cast their shadows on the ancient Anasazi ruins of Chaco Canyon. The UNESCO World Heritage Site has become a flash point as environmentalists and tribal leaders look to curb drilling in the San Juan Basin.(AP Photo/Eric Draper, File)

U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has canceled an oil and gas lease sale near Chaco Canyon in northern New Mexico until the agency can further review the impact on cultural artifacts in the area.

The sale was set for March 8.

Zinke told the Journal in an exclusive interview Thursday afternoon that “there have been some questions raised” so the Bureau of Land Management will hold off on the sale of about 25 parcels on 4,434 acres within Rio Arriba, Sandoval, and San Juan Counties in northwestern New Mexico.

“We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation,” Zinke told the Journal.

The Bureau of Land Management received 120 protests opposing the March sale. Tribal officials, environmentalists and others say the lease sites in question are too close to Chaco Culture National Historical Park and other sites they consider culturally significant.

“We heard from the tribe and Sen. (Tom) Udall’s and (Martin) Heinrich’s offices have both voiced some concerns,” Zinke said. “My job is to make sure that the local voices are heard and the state and national interests are reflected. In this case, there is some concern about the proximity to Chaco of some of the leases and the uncertainty about cultural impacts.”

Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, cheered news that an area containing remnants and artifacts of an ancient civilization would be protected from oil and gas drilling encroachment – at least for now.

“I appreciate Secretary Zinke listening to the concerns of New Mexicans and terminating the proposed lease sale in the Chaco region,” Udall said. “This will provide an opportunity for the joint BLM-BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) regional planning process to incorporate the input of local communities, pueblos and tribes, along with industry and other stakeholders.

“New Mexicans deserve a say in any proposed development on public lands our state, especially when it is near sacred or culturally sensitive land,” Udall added.

Udall pushed for the Department of the Interior’s 2016 decision to conduct a joint review of the resource management of public and tribal lands in Northwestern New Mexico, including the impact of potential oil and gas leasing near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

In the Journal interview, Zinke noted that the leases in question “are well outside Chaco” and said “not everyone is happy we are deferring it.”

“But when there is an oil and gas decision and the risk is uncertain it’s in everyone’s best interest to defer it and look it more closely and examine it,” Zinke said.

Zinke said the BLM has been conducting required consultation with the affected parties under the National Historic Preservation Act on all of the proposed parcels.  Those parties include state and tribal governments and others. As a result of the ruling, the BLM will complete an extensive cultural report, which will be used to support the agency’s findings of how oil and gas leasing would affect the proposed area.

In recent years, attempts to convince the federal government to preserve the Chaco region as an area of critical environmental concern have been unsuccessful. In January, the All Pueblo Council of Governors representing 20 Native American tribes formally protested the March 8 lease sale.