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Editorial: It’s past time to set buffer zone around Chaco Canyon

More than a decade ago, the state Land Office offered to determine a reasonable buffer for its lands around Chaco Canyon in northwestern New Mexico to protect the national monument/national historic park/World Heritage Site from the sight and noise of drilling rigs tapping fossil fuels.

It would have been a solid benchmark to determine how close is close enough for development to Chaco’s “massive buildings of the ancestral Pueblo peoples (that) still testify to the organizational and engineering abilities not seen anywhere else in the American Southwest.”

And in the ensuing decade-plus, guess what’s happened? Nothing.

So in 2018 we are having the same discussion we had in 2013 that we had in 2007 – trying to figure out that sweet spot that isn’t just over the boundary line of one of the world’s most sacred places but isn’t as far as the horizon in every direction.

Granted, 11 years is a blink of an eye in Chaco terms – but the issue has now run through three presidential administrations.

So kudos to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who earlier this month put the Bureau of Land Management’s March 8 sale of about 25 natural gas or oil leases near Chaco Canyon on hold to allow further review of how those activities would impact the area’s cultural artifacts. It is past time to determine a reasonable buffer that protects Chaco’s significant archaeological remnants of ancient Pueblo people’s lifestyles and presence. And past time to let the oil and gas industry know what the rules for doing business in the area are.

Opponents of drilling include environmentalists and tribal officials. Environmentalists have asked the federal government for a permanent 10-mile buffer zone around the park. The All Pueblo Council of Governors, representing 20 Native American tribes, formally protested the proposed lease sale in January.

Proponents include oil and gas interests that have been waiting for several years for sale of leases on about 25 parcels on more than 4,400 acres outside the park but in the “Greater Chaco” area.

Zinke has acknowledged the proposed leases “are well outside Chaco” but has added that “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 at it more closely and examine it.”

The secretary’s common-sense action is a change from the current administration’s recent moves to reverse some Obama-era environmental-protection regulations nationwide. And it follows Zinke’s decision after visiting New Mexico to spare our newest national monuments, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande del Norte, from boundary reductions, choosing to recommend some management adjustments instead.

The BLM has been consulting with the affected parties under the National Historic Preservation Act for years. Now, in light of Zinke’s deferring the lease sale, it should complete its analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites in the proposed leasing area and determine how close certain activities can be allowed near the historic park, which draws about 55,000 individual visits a year.

Having a comprehensive cultural review is critical to reaching a decision that works for all parties, one that protects this precious treasure but allows drilling a set distance away. Zinke is to be applauded for providing time and resources for that to finally happen.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.