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BLM to issue oil leases on land near sacred site

The sale of oil and gas leases for land parcels near a UNESCO World Heritage Site in New Mexico and other places sacred to Native American tribes is moving ahead.

Democratic lawmakers, tribal leaders and conservationists have criticized the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for going forward with the plan at Chaco Culture National Historical Park as well as sites in Oklahoma despite the recent government shutdown.

“It’s a mistake that while critical public services were shuttered for 35 days during the government shutdown, BLM still moved forward with this opaque process,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) told the Associated Press in an email.

Important and beloved area

Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage Site noted for its “monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture — it has an ancient urban ceremonial center that is unlike anything constructed before or since.” The park and the surrounding area carries with it considerable importance for ancestral Puebloan culture, with many structures dating back to pre-Columbian times. Some buildings are even aligned with the cycles of the sun and the moon.

The site is largely isolated, accessible only by dirt roads. The isolation of the park, according to AP, is part of its part of the park’s allure. Trails, like the Pueblo Alto Trail, can reach up to 300 feet (91 meters), offering stunning views of the desert landscape, the Puebloan structures and — once the sun goes down — the night sky in all its glory with nary a modern structure in sight.

Given its cultural and natural significance, Chaco has traditionally been given a wide berth by federal land managers, resulting in what the AP calls “an informal buffer.” The federal government has declined to allow oil and gas exploration on the land near the park in the past; even recently resigned Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke halted a sale of land near the park in 2018 following protests.

Ruins of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park The ruins of Pueblo Bonito, seen here, were built sometime between 828 and 1126. It’s the most studied site in all of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. (Photo: SkybirdForever/Wikimedia Commons)

Tensions have simmered for years between the government and those who would like the area preserved. BLM and the Bureau of Indians Affairs have worked together to ensure that any land management plan would take into account the area’s significance, culturally and scientifically. So far, that plan, in development since 2012, has not yet been released, per the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Udall and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico introduced legislation in May 2018 that would place a moratorium on future oil and gas development on federal land within a 10-mile radius of Chaco. Udall intends to reintroduce this legislation.

Conservationists are concerned that drilling would harm the area, even from 10 miles away.

Visitors “would hear it, would smell it,” Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, a Tucson-based nonprofit, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “That would be the worst kind of degradation.”

Reed and others argue that agencies like BLM have not done their due diligence in determining how modern energy extraction processes would impact the area.

BLM pushed back the original lease sale date by a couple of weeks because the government shut down overlapping with the public protest period, but the agency updated its website to announce the lease sale date of March 28. BLM will make a detailed list of parcels available next week, but that list can change up to the day of the sale.

Additional sites in New Mexico and Oklahoma, more than 50 in all, are currently slated for the lease sale.

A new protest period will begin on Feb. 11 and end on Feb. 20.

BLM to issue oil leases on land near sacred site

Land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico is scheduled to go up for sale in March.

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