Retired National Park Service employees spoke with reporters today about the impacts of oil and gas development on some national parks—particularly from adjacent lands overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
The Coalition to Protect America’s Parks sent a letter to U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, expressing concern over the “alarming” number of oil and gas proposals near parks and what they see as overall efforts by the department to reduce protections for national parks in order to encourage oil and gas drilling.
“As former land managers, we understand the need to balance competing priorities,” the former NPS employees wrote. “But we fear the pendulum is swinging too far to the side of development.”
The coalition represents 1,400 retired, former and current National Park Service employees. The letter to Zinke cites concerns about six parks in particular, including Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the energy-rich San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico.
Tom Vaughan, who spent decades working for the National Park Service, served as superintendent of Chaco during the 1980s. He said that while driving on Highway 550 last month, he was “flabbergasted” by the rise in development, particularly on the checkerboard of BLM, state and allotment lands on the eastern Navajo Nation.
Between Farmington and Cuba, drivers on Highway 550 can see just some of the oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin.
“I could have stopped anyplace along there and counted three to six new developments,” he said, referring to newly drilled wells, pumps, access roads and other infrastructure near Nageezi and Counselor.
Tribal governments, activists and some local residents on the eastern Navajo Nation have asked the BLM and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs to enact a moratorium on new wells until the environmental and social impacts of that new development have been more carefully studied.
Earlier this year, New Mexico’s State Legislature passed a memorial, encouraging the two agencies to halt new leases and drilling permits until sufficient tribal consultation and a new resource management plan has been completed.
The memorial from state Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat from the Pueblo of Sandia, cited the historical, cultural and economic importance of the hundreds of sacred and archaeological sites in northwestern New Mexico.
Vaughan pointed out that while the park protects 34,000 acres, the BLM and BIA are together responsible for more than 3 million acres within the San Juan Basin—and said the decisions those agencies make when it comes to oil and gas leasing have broad impacts on the park, archaeological resources and research, visitors and local residents.
It’s important that the BLM update its resource management plan, he said, noting that there are “smart tools” that can be used for planning and management of energy development.
“What’s the rush?” he asked of the push to develop more quickly.
“The area includes a concentration of 1,000-year old structures that are unmatched in the Southwest,” Vaughan said. “There is a collection of those protected in the park, but they have relationships—largely unexplored relationships—in the rest of the basin. Much of the story that’s told in the park lies outside the boundaries, in the basin, and that’s where leases are being sold.”
Widespread natural gas drilling took off in the San Juan Basin in the 1940s, spurring a number of booms and busts. In the 1980s, companies also began drilling into coal seams to remove the natural gas trapped there. Production increased into the 21st century as companies developed more efficient ways of reaching natural gas, like hydraulic fracturing, and then busted in 2010 when natural gas production was so high it caused prices to drop. In recent years, companies have also started drilling for higher-value oil trapped within tight shale formations.