In separate letters, the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG), all members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, the state Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department, and nonprofit organizations are urging the U.S. Department of the Interior to extend a public comment period for a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plan amendment and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that will determine the future of oil and gas development and cultural resource protection for lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Due to the public health crisis caused by the spread of COVID-19, the Farmington Mancos-Gallup Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) and EIS timeline must be extended in order to ensure a robust public process and meaningful tribal consultation.
The letter signed by United States Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, as well as Congressional Representatives Ben Ray Luján, Deb Haaland, and Xochitl Torres Small, requests:
“The public has been invited to participate in the planning process by providing comments during a 90-day public comment and review period which began on February 28, 2020. Due to rapidly evolving situation with COVID-19, it is imperative that the public be given sufficient time to submit comments on the RMPA/EIS. Therefore, we ask that the Department extend the comment period of the aforementioned RMPA/EIS by at least 120-days, to allow sufficient time for comments after the threat of pandemic has passed.”
A letter from the State of New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department echoed this request.
The Greater Chaco Landscape is one of the richest cultural areas in the United States. Chaco Canyon, at the center of this landscape, is recognized as one of the country’s 22 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It is one of the ancestral homes of the Pueblo people and also considered sacred by many others throughout the Southwest. The living cultural landscape holds thousands of ancient structures and archaeological sites—some of which have yet to be identified and studied.
Currently, only a small area is protected as the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Most of the publicly-managed lands in the region are unprotected and exposed to industrial development — more than 90 percent is already leased for oil and gas drilling. The RMPA’s “preferred alternative,” which shows the direction the agency is planning to take, contains several sub-alternatives, which range from including no oil and gas leasing closures at all around the park, up to only a four-mile closure around the park. The preferred alternative falls well short of the 10-mile buffer the All Pueblo Council of Governors, among others, has called for to protect cultural and historic resources.
The All Pueblo Council of Governors letter states:
“APCG and our member Pueblos are working diligently to prioritize the safety of our families and communities into the foreseeable future, and we cannot be expected to meaningfully participate as NHPA (National Historic Preservation Act) consulting parties or fulfill our responsibilities (when applicable) as NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) cooperating agencies during this unprecedented national crisis. And, yet, our participation is protected and required by federal law, and only with our full participation will the RMPA process be successful.”
And a letter from eight organizations adds:
“BLM’s own internal guidance mandates meaningful opportunities for public participation and for coordination with an interested public during planning processes. This cannot be accomplished without public meetings or hearings, and any process which proceeds without meaningful and genuine opportunities for public engagement and participation will fall well short of the requirements of the BLM manual.”
In a recent poll, 70 percent of New Mexicans expressed support for conserving existing lands surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Extending the draft RMPA comment period will help ensure that the public is not left out of the public process due to the current health emergency.
The comment period comes as the BLM’s recently released RMPs across the West have shown an unprecedented effort to drastically reduce conservation protections of our nation’s wildest lands. If the Farmington draft resource management plan amendment follows this trend, it would forever damage irreplaceable cultural resources across the Greater Chaco Landscape.