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BLM silences voices during pandemic

In the midst of the current public health and economic crisis, President Trump’s Department of the Interior recklessly moved ahead with plans to open up the area surrounding Chaco Canyon to oil and gas drilling.

When the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) first proposed its draft Farmington Resource Management plan, which could open the entire area around Chaco Canyon to drilling under the “preferred” alternative, it was clear the proposal did not adequately protect Chaco. Its plan for the region puts cultural sites at risk and ignores the long-standing demands from tribal leaders, the governor, the entire congressional delegation, the state land commissioner and communities in the area for protections.

Now, the voices of the tribes are being sidelined again during this time of unimaginable heartbreak. Tribal communities are suffering disproportionately from COVID-19. They are focusing their resources to provide relief to those hardest hit. Their attention is rightfully elsewhere. As a result, the decision to move forward with the comment period during this global pandemic serves only to disenfranchise these communities and is a failure to fulfill Department of Interior’s trust and treaty obligations to Native nations and fails to protect a national treasure. In effect, BLM is cutting out members of the public in Indian Country and other rural parts of New Mexico who lack access to adequate internet service, as New Mexico ranks 49th for broadband internet access.

That is why my fellow New Mexico congressional delegation members and I sent a letter to the secretary of the Interior urging him to extend the public comment deadline on the Farmington RMP process by 120 days given the pandemic has removed the option for citizens to provide input in person. They are relying instead on a late announcement of wholly inadequate virtual meetings. At the time of this writing, our request has been ignored.

It is insulting, particularly to Native communities and those in rural parts of New Mexico during a global pandemic, to shove through a planning process that will shape how these irreplaceable lands and cultural icons are managed for decades. It is imperative that tribes, local leaders and people across the state make their voices heard. I urge Interior Secretary David Bernhardt to heed the calls of the entire N.M. congressional delegation, state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, All Pueblo Council of Governors, Pueblo of Laguna, Santa Clara Pueblo and Pueblo of Acoma to extend the period to allow sufficient time for comments after the threat of the pandemic has passed.

I urge all New Mexicans who are able to call on Secretary Bernhardt and the BLM to agree to our request to extend the comment period so our communities truly have the opportunity for meaningful participation. At the same time, I strongly encourage those of you who care about the greater Chaco area to provide public comment by May 28 letting BLM know you support “management Alternative B,” which would close federal lands within 10 miles of Chaco to future oil and gas leasing to safeguard the irreplaceable historic and cultural resources and sacred sites in the greater Chaco landscape.

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