When it comes to protecting the Greater Chaco region, the answers are not always simple, as demonstrated by the ongoing public comment period regarding withdrawing federal lands around Chaco Culture National Historical Park from mineral leasing for two decades.
The oil-rich section of the San Juan Basin has been at the center of debate as Indigenous and environmental groups push for increased protection of the sacred landscape, including an end to new leases that lead to increased emissions, pollution of land and water, and oil-field traffic impacting surrounding communities. But, while the withdrawal does not affect allottee mineral rights, some of the Navajo allottees who live in the proposed buffer zone say withdrawing the lands means cutting off their access to one of the few sources of economic opportunity in the remote area.
This process began in November with a secretarial order from the U.S. Department of the Interior. Public comments must be submitted by April 6.
Leading up to that deadline, the Bureau of Land Management hosted meetings on Wednesday in Farmington to provide information to the public about the process. The meetings also allowed the BLM to provide the public with details about some of the other Farmington Field Office projects, which also focus on the Chaco region. This includes the new Honoring Chaco initiative, which is intended to “develop a vision for a broader cultural approach to all land management decisions across the Greater Chaco Landscape,” according to information the BLM provided during the meeting.
Initially described as a 10-mile buffer zone, the map of the proposed withdrawal looks a bit different than previous proposals.
BLM Farmington Field Office Acting District Manager Chuck Schmidt said the boundaries are similar to what was included in a 2019 bill introduced in Congress; however, it now goes farther to the south to encompass a Chacoan outlier called Kin Ya’a and stretches farther to the north, abutting the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness Area. Kin Ya’a is located east of Crownpoint. The withdrawal area encompasses more than 351,000 acres of federal lands.
While the meetings in Farmington were not intended to serve as a public comment opportunity, the question and answer session during the first meeting quickly turned into comments and Schmidt encouraged the people speaking to provide those comments in writing so they can be included in the record.
The BLM is planning to host a formal comment meeting in March at a date that has not yet been set. Having the opportunity to provide verbal comments is important for the Native American communities that have ancestral and cultural ties to the Chaco region.
Jerome Lucero, the former governor of Zia Pueblo and the current vice chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, explained that they “don’t write things down, it’s verbal, it’s oral,” and that allowing only for written comments is not adequate.
Lucero also requested that meetings take place in either Albuquerque or Santa Fe to allow for more participation from the Pueblo communities, which trace their ancestry to Chaco.
He said that the Interior has a difficult decision to make and either way someone will be hurt. He said if the withdrawal is approved, the Navajo allottees who have allotments within the buffer zone may see decreased economic opportunities. But, if it isn’t approved, continued leasing will threaten the Chaco landscape that his people hold sacred. Lucero said Chaco needs to be protected for future generations.
Chaco Canyon is located in the southern part of the San Juan Basin and is one of the more productive parts in terms of oil extraction. But it is also a remote area with few economic opportunities and leasing rights to extractive industry has helped the Navajo allottees.
The withdrawal will only be for federal lands and would not include Navajo allotments, but the allottees say it will effectively preclude development of new oil and gas resources on allotments because of the checkerboard nature of land ownership in the area.
Ervin Chavez, an allottee, said Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, when she was a congresswoman, sponsored legislation that would have withdrawn the areas around Chaco Culture National Historical Park from mineral leasing. He said it is a conflict to have her be the one ultimately making the decision about the withdrawal.
Prior to the meeting at San Juan College, the BLM, including Director Tracy Stone-Manning, met with allottees to discuss their concerns.
“I heard one common denominator, people are in love with this landscape. And it makes decision making all the harder when people are so, so, so deeply committed to a place,” she said, adding that it also makes it more beautiful because people are so committed.
Stone-Manning said that it’s helpful to hear the different perspectives.
“And this is just the beginning of the process,” she said. “We’ve got a long analysis process that will have a lot of public comment in it and we need to hear as much as possible so that we can give a full analysis to the secretary so that she can make her decision.”
The BLM will also go through a National Environmental Policy Act review about the withdrawal. Schmidt said the NEPA analysis will soon be kicked off. That process will also include opportunities for people to comment.
Leading up to the meetings, the Greater Chaco Coalition sent a letter on Tuesday to Interior Secretary Deb Haaland as well as Stone-Manning. The letter expressed concerns about the BLM considering the approval of “dozens of new oil and gas development proposals that collectively could lead to the drilling of more than 100 new wells, the construction of miles of new roads, and new irreparable heavy machinery disturbance across hundreds of acres of lands in the Greater Chaco region.”
The coalition requested that the BLM temporarily pause approval of new oil and gas development in the region and keep that pause in place until the Honoring Chaco Initiative is completed. The Greater Chaco region extends beyond the proposed withdrawal area, however the coalition states that recently approved new permits for drilling and development include areas “within and near the 10-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park.”
“Chaco Canyon area is sacred and no drilling should take place anywhere in the vicinity of it, especially when conducted to run around the upcoming protective initiative,” Tammy Parker, an environmental specialist for Zuni Environmental Protection, said in a press release about the letter.
Public comments about the proposed withdrawal can be submitted online or by emailing email@example.com. Comments can also be mailed to Bureau of Land Management, Farmington Field Office, Attn: Sarah Scott, 6251 College Blvd., Suite A, Farmington, NM 87402.