WASHINGTON – 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 next Thursday.
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 said.
The Bureau of Land Management received 120 comments opposing the 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 told the Journal in an interview in his office. “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 a prehistoric 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 Interior Department’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 proposed 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.
Heinrich said the issue is an important one in New Mexico.
“I commend Secretary Zinke for agreeing with the people of New Mexico and halting the proposed lease sale of the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park,” Heinrich said. “This area holds much meaning to the Navajo Nation, whose lands surround the park, and New Mexico pueblos who consider the sites sacred. The collaboration between BLM and BIA is critical to protecting important cultural and religious sites while planning for future energy development, as well as incorporating tribal priorities into the planning process.”
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 persuade the federal government to preserve the Chaco region, which includes areas outside the national historical park, 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 proposed lease sale.