The preservation and protection of Native American cultural sites would be a priority of U.S. land managers under one of the options up for consideration as they work to amend an outdated guide for management of oil and gas drilling across a sprawling area of northwestern New Mexico.
The area is home to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which has become the focal point in a decades-long fight over oil and gas.
The campaign to curb drilling in one of the nation’s oldest basins has spanned at least three presidential administrations. In recent years, concerns expanded beyond environmental effects to the preservation of cultural landmarks as tribes joined with environmentalists and archaeologists to warn that unchecked development could compromise significant spots outside the boundaries of the World Heritage site.
Within Chaco, walls of stacked stone jut up from the canyon floor, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular ceremonial subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert, surrounded by the remnants of what historians say was once a hub of indigenous civilization.
The draft made public Friday through a federal notice includes alternatives crafted by both the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Aside from the option that emphasizes the protection of cultural landscapes, the others cover a range of ecological and economic considerations.
Federal officials acknowledged in the documents that innovations in the oil industry along with favorable prices have enhanced the economics of developing more areas within the San Juan Basin, which spans parts of New Mexico and southern Colorado.
With more development, especially in the shale oil area, they said additional effects may occur.
The public will have 90 days to comment on the alternatives. It could take months before a final decision is made.
Some groups want the agencies to restart the planning process, saying officials need to take a more comprehensive look at the cumulative effects of drilling in the region to ensure environmental safety, public health and the protection of cultural sites outside Chaco.
“Hundreds of groups and tribal nations have called for reprieve, but any hope for environmental justice looks grave,” said Rebecca Sobel, who works on climate and energy issues for WildEarth Guardians.
The Bureau of Land Management has been deferring interest by the oil and gas industry in parcels within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of Chaco to address the concerns of environmentalists and Native American leaders. Legislation pending in Congress aims to codify that practice, essentially establishing a buffer around the park.
An agency official testified before a congressional subcommittee last year that the BLM had no objection to the Democrat-sponsored bill. The testimony came after Interior Secretary David Bernhardt toured Chaco and met with leaders from the Navajo Nation and New Mexico’s pueblos.
Bernhardt made a commitment at the time to ensure that the plan being developed by land managers would include alternatives that reflected provisions of the legislation as well as the views of tribal leaders who are seeking permanent protections.
Efforts to amend the resource management plan began in 2014 with a round of public meetings. More meetings were held in 2016 and 2017 after the Bureau of Indian Affairs was brought on to help address tribal concerns.