ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Environmentalists are challenging plans by federal land managers to lease four parcels in northwestern New Mexico for oil and gas development, saying the property is too close to Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.
The world heritage site and its outlying archaeological remnants have become the focus of the fight over expanded drilling in one of the nation’s largest natural gas fields.
Environmentalists have been pushing for years to curtail development in the region. They say now that the new parcels in question — which span less than two square miles — are near the homes of Navajo residents and within 20 miles of the park.
The Bureau of Land Management has already established a 10-mile buffer around the park and is in the process of developing a new management plan for resources across millions of acres in the region. Federal officials also recently agreed to expand their review to consider the cultural significance of sites scattered throughout the area.
Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said while the federal agency has acknowledged a new analysis is needed to understand the landscape-level effects of development in the greater Chaco region, oil and gas leasing continues.
“This decision has very real consequences for the people who call these lands their home, and on the air, water and climate they depend on,” Tisdel said in a statement.
The environmental groups submitted their protest earlier this week.
BLM officials in Farmington said Thursday they will review the protest as part of the process leading up to the Jan. 25 lease sale.
Native American leaders from elsewhere in the state have called on the agency to make permanent the 10-mile buffer around Chaco and support development of a master leasing plan.
Industry officials have said previously they believe developers can operate in the area in such a way that protects cultural sites linked to Chaco.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Chaco national park includes what’s left of an ancient civilization whose monumental architecture and cultural influences have been a source of mystery for years. While the park represents the heart of the area, numerous archaeological sites lie well outside park boundaries.
Environmentalists say the greater Chaco area deserves protection. They define it as a significant portion of northwestern New Mexico that’s considered culturally significant to the descendants of those who once traversed the Four Corners region.
In all, the planning process by the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs covers more than 4 million acres.