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US delays oil-and-gas lease sale near sacred tribal land

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — U.S. land managers no longer plan to move forward in March with selling oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, saying Friday they need to gather more information before they put up the land for bidding in New Mexico.

The decision by the federal Bureau of Land Management reverses a notice last week that the agency intended to proceed with drilling permit reviews and energy lease preparations. The Chaco-area parcels lie within 10 miles (or 16 kilometers) of the remote park in northwest New Mexico that is a globally recognized historical site and sacred site for tribes.

A thousand years ago, historians say the remains of dwellings and stone structures where the park is located had been a ceremonial and economic hub for Pueblo people. In recent years, it has been a part of ongoing debate as federal officials repeatedly decline oil and gas exploration in what’s become an informal buffer zone around the park.

“The BLM did the right thing by deferring these parcels from being leased on culturally-significant and fragile land in the greater Chaco area, a UNESCO world heritage site,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico, said in a written statement. “Some places are just too special to lose.”

He and others, including tribal leaders, had criticized the Trump administration for scheduling the lease sale for the area amid the government shutdown.

They argued opponents were blocked from the decision-making process because federal officials did not release information about the planned sale. They also questioned whether federal officials would be able to adequately review the land up for bid.

While Udall applauded Friday’s decision, he also noted it marked the third time the agency had deferred on selling the parcels under the Trump administration, which has sought to promote mining, drilling and other energy development on public lands.

Acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt earlier this week said that the Bureau of Land Management last year generated $1.1 billion from selling oil and gas leases. The announcement came during a visit to Hobbs, a city in southeast New Mexico that’s at the center of the state’s oil region.

The government still plans to sell oil and gas leases next month for other land parcels in the area of New Mexico where Bernhardt visits, as well the state’s northwest region, which includes the Four Corners area, said Cathy Garber, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management in New Mexico.

Nine parcels in Oklahoma also will be sold online March 28, she said.