Pressure mounts as tribes seek more time on drilling plan

(Eric Draper | AP file photo) Tourists cast their shadows on the ancient Anasazi ruins of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico, Nov. 21, 1996. Lawmakers from the country's largest American Indian reservation may have thrown a wrinkle into efforts aimed at establishing a permanent buffer around the national park as New Mexico's congressional delegation, environmentalists and other tribes try to keep oil and gas development from getting closer to the World Heritage site. Navajo Nation delegates voted Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, to support a buffer only half the size of the one proposed in legislation pending in Congress.

Albuquerque, N.M. • After more than a decade of planning and protests, U.S. land managers have crafted a proposal for how to manage oil and gas development across a wide swath of northwestern New Mexico that includes a national park and areas held sacred by Native American tribes.

The clock began ticking in February when the Bureau of Land Management gave people 90 days to review the proposal and offer comments.

Then came the pandemic.

In recent weeks, life for many has taken an unexpected turn — especially for tribal communities that have been most effected by the coronavirus outbreak. Pueblos in New Mexico have imposed curfews, while the Navajo Nation has opted for tough restrictions and weekend lockdowns in hopes of stemming the increase of coronavirus cases.

“We are in no position to shift our attention,” said J. Michael Chavarria, governor of Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

He warned Friday that the priority is the health crisis and it would be impossible to pivot and start reviewing the Bureau of Land Management's detailed documents if tribes wanted to formulate meaningful feedback on what's planned for the land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

He was joined by U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso, New Mexico's top energy official and others in renewing the call for the federal government to extend the public comment period by 120 days.

The deadline is May 28, and the Bureau of Land Management has remained silent despite receiving official requests on congressional letterhead and a flurry of emails and phone calls from environmentalists and others over the last month.

U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, another New Mexico Democrat, spoke with U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt this week. Bernhardt put off making an announcement, which some interpreted as an indication that federal officials might be considering the timing given the hardships that have resulted from the outbreak.

The Bureau of Land Management is planning to host a series of virtual meetings on the proposal but tribal leaders said in addition to the challenges related to the outbreak, many residents will be left out of the process because they live in rural areas that lack the bandwidth required to stream such an event.

Even as community leaders at every level are planning for reopening, New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Cottrell Propst said Friday that all aspects of life have been disrupted due to the virus and the state supports giving people more time to weigh in.

“Our normal way of life is really far away from returning and that fact needs to be considered when we're conducting public hearings and comment periods and planning for our future,” she said.

Even with the virtual meetings planned for mid-May, she said that would leave little time for the public to absorb the information and formulate comments.

A World Heritage site, Chaco park and the surrounding area have been at the center of a decades-long fight over drilling in northwestern New Mexico.

While drilling is off-limits within Chaco's boundaries, concerns 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 park.

The alternatives being considered by the federal government cover thousands of square miles of federal land, property belonging to the Navajo Nation and allotments owned by individual Navajos. The area includes the San Juan Basin — one of the nation’s oldest oil and gas basins.