BIA: Navajo members can ‘work around’ connectivity issues to participate in online forum on oil and gas development

Representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) told participants of a virtual meeting Wednesday that they can “work around” connectivity issues to participate in information sessions about proposed amendments to the BLM’s Resource Management Plan for the Farmington field office. 

The comments came after Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso called for the BLM to “immediately and indefinitely suspend” the amendment process, in a letter that was read aloud by Mario Atencio during the online meeting. Tso represents the northwest New Mexico Navajo Chapters Baca/Prewitt, Casamero Lake, Counselor, Littlewater, Ojo Encino, Pueblo Pintado, Torreon and Whitehorse Lake. “The Navajo Nation is still in the midst of an extreme public health emergency caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Tso’s letter stated, adding that for a period of time, the Navajo Nation was experiencing an infection rate that was “among the highest in the world per capita.”

“The expectation for the Navajo Nation to engage in ‘meaningful consultation’ regarding the amendment of a resource management plan while the Navajo Nation has been singularly focused on fighting the SARS-CoV-2 global pandemic is extremely burdensome to the Navajo Nation,” the letter stated. 

RELATED: Planting hope amid a plague

The BLM’s draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) was initially released in late February about a week before New Mexico recorded its first cases of COVID-19. The 400-plus page draft amendment outlines a preferred alternative that would increase oil and gas activity in the Greater Chaco region. 

Tribal governments, environmental groups and members of the state’s Congressional delegation all subsequently called for the U.S. Department of the Interior to extend or halt the process until after the pandemic. 

RELATED: BLM will move forward on Greater Chaco drilling proposal while communities grapple with COVID-19 surge

BLM decided in early May to extend the deadline for submitting public comments by 120 days.That period ends September 25. But all of the public outreach and information sessions have since been conducted online. 

Sixty percent of Navajo Nation residents currently lack access to broadband, according to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

Planting hope amid a plague

SHIPROCK, N.M. — Four miles down Farm Road, just off U.S. Route 491 in northern Navajo, a group of young Diné used what was left of daylight in early May to plant onions and potatoes on Yellow Wash Farm. As the novel coronavirus stretched its way through Navajoland, leaving a trail of heartbreak and uncertainty, the four Navajo men, a mixture of family and friends from Shiprock, picked up their seeds and broke the earth with their shovels. This story first appeared at Searchlight New Mexico and is republished with permission. By month’s end, the Navajo Nation would have the highest per-capita infection rate in the country, surpassing even New York state. The outbreak cut a swath across the vast reservation, from outposts in Arizona to the mesas and high desert in northwest New Mexico, where Shiprock, or Naatʼáanii Nééz — the largest Navajo community — became a hotspot seemingly overnight.

Dire streets: Roadways and broken promises on the Navajo Nation

SANOSTEE, N.M. — Sharon Begay knows this road by heart. The 43-year-old mother of two has spent a lifetime memorizing the jagged surface and thuggish boulders that define Indian Service Route 5010. Locals just call it “the road” and gauge distances with landmarks: windmills, S-curves, a water tower covered with graffiti that once served as the town’s main source of gossip. It’s an unpaved byway in the Sanostee Chapter of the Navajo Nation that feeds a network of unnamed dirt roads, serving hundreds of families in the shadows of the Chuska Mountains. Generations of Begay’s family have herded sheep along this road; as a child she traveled it by horseback, alongside her father.

Federal court, Zinke call for consultation with tribes on Chaco. But what will that mean?

At the end of March, a federal court said the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has not adequately considered protection of cultural sites near Chaco Culture National Historical Park when granting permits for oil and gas drilling. The full order is still forthcoming, but the six-page memo by Judge James Browning echoed comments by U.S. Department of the Interior Ryan Zinke earlier this spring. When Zinke postponed the sale of oil and gas leases on 4,434 acres of BLM land in San Juan, Sandoval and Rio Arriba counties, he told the Albuquerque Journal, “We’re going to defer those leases until we do some cultural consultation.”

Under federal law, agencies must consult with tribes that have cultural ties to an area being developed, whether the plan is to drill oil and gas wells, inundate a reservoir, build a pipeline or create a national monument. Yet, what often constitutes consultation is already considered inadequate by tribes and activists—and some wonder how the Interior Department will address the problem in northwestern New Mexico while simultaneously prioritizing energy development. President Donald Trump signed an executive order early in his administration directing Zinke to review the agency’s rules, including one guiding hydraulic fracturing on federal and Indian lands.

Harassment pervades the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Sue Parton first began working for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1976, as a teacher at the Albuquerque Indian School, one of the few remaining BIA boarding schools at that time. Parton, a member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, had been around the agency most of her life; her father was a lifelong employee. But she gained a new perspective in 2008, as she got more involved with the Federation of Indian Service Employees, the union that represents employees of the four Interior Department agencies that serve Native Americans. This story originally appeared at High Country News and is reprinted with permission. “One of the things that shocked me was the intimidation factor,” says Parton, now president of the union.

The Navajo Nation has a wild horse problem

Up to 40,000 wild horses wander the Navajo Nation, roaming across 27,000 miles of deep canyons, rugged hills and huge mountains, according to aerial estimates from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In just five years, the population is expected to double. Already the feral horses compete with domestic animals, sheep or cattle, and wildlife for water and sparse vegetation. Yet a Navajo Nation oversight committee recently denied an $800,000 funding request from the tribe’s Fish and Wildlife Department to help reduce the horse population, leaving the nation with few alternatives. “Right now, there is no program,” Leo Watchman, Navajo Nation Agriculture Department director, told me recently.

Under Trump, tribal land ownership is not a priority

During President Barack Obama’s eight-year tenure, tribal sovereignty, the power by which tribes govern themselves, was a prime concern. But under the Trump administration, that may change. There are several indicators of this shift, including proposed budget cuts to the Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and the de-prioritization of major land initiatives. Within the first six months of President Donald Trump’s administration, the Department of Interior has renewed its interest of energy development and tribal land privatization. That differs starkly from Obama policies, which focused on both acquiring and consolidating land for tribal nations.