Groups: More Time Needed to Weigh New Mexico Drilling Plan

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Archaeologists, historians and environmentalists are joining New Mexico’s congressional delegation and a coalition of Native American tribes in asking federal land managers to grant more time for the public to comment on a contested plan that will guide oil and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The federal government should wait until the coronavirus outbreak subsides to ensure the public has an adequate opportunity to participate, the groups have argued in a series of letters sent to the U.S. Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management in recent days.

The National Parks Conservation Association, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and other groups issued their plea Friday, noting that many tribal communities vested in the outcome lack reliable internet service and that virtual meetings would be impossible for many.

Making a final decision on the proposed resource management plan without adequate public engagement would be a violation of federal laws and guidelines, they said.

“Planning documents are simply too important and impactful to be advanced without face-to-face engagement with the interested public,” the groups said.

The campaign to curb drilling in northwestern New Mexico’s share of the San Juan Basin has spanned at least three presidential administrations. While drilling is off-limits within Chaco park’s boundaries, concerns in recent years have expanded beyond environmental effects to the preservation of cultural landmarks.

Tribes, environmentalists and archaeologists all warn that unchecked development could compromise significant spots outside the boundaries of the World Heritage site.

While tribal leaders from outside the area want to halt drilling around Chaco, top Navajo Nation leaders have been more reserved as oil and gas provides a significant source of revenue for the tribe and for individual Navajo property owners. Navajo lawmakers recently voted to support a buffer around the park only half the size of the one outlined in federal legislation pending in Congress.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 tribal communities, said in its letter to federal officials that the public health emergency has forced the closure of many non-essential government operations and resources have been redirected to provide emergency services.

“For many, this means staff who would be directly working on federal administrative processes related to the (plan), including our tribal historic preservation officers and environmental department staff, are not available,” said J. Michael Chavarria, the council’s chairman.

The groups are asking that the comment period be extended by at least 120 days. New Mexico’s congressional delegation says that would also allow more time for tribes to craft an ethnographic study for the federal government to consider.

It was not immediately clear if federal officials would consider granting an extension.

U.S. land managers in late February made public a list of possible alternatives for managing development in the San Juan Basin, one of the nation’s oldest oil and gas basins. Environmentalists and others complained the options failed to take into account the cumulative costs of increased drilling and threats to Native American cultural sites.

Officials with the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs indicated their preference for an alternative that would “balance community needs and development” while limiting impacts on the traditional, socioeconomic and cultural way of life of those who call the area home.

This article originally appeared in AP News.