In March, United States officials will move forward with plans to sell leases for oil and gas exploration in two states: New Mexico and Oklahoma.
The leases include land near the Chaco Culture National Historical Park and other areas that Native American tribes consider holy.
The sale comes against the wishes of tribal leaders, environmentalists and Democratic Party lawmakers. All three groups have criticized the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for pushing ahead with drilling permit inspections and preparations for energy leases.
The bureau had few people working when the federal government was partially closed for five weeks in December and January.
Critics have said that they were barred from the process because the government failed to release any information about the sale. Critics also questioned if the bureau would be able to effectively examine the land available for leasing and whether it would consider objections to the plans.
Tom Udall is a U.S. Senator and Democrat from New Mexico. He told The Associated Press in an email that he is concerned about the latest attempt to lease culturally important land without a more complete plan.
Udall said it was a mistake for the agency to move forward with such an unclear process since critical government services were closed for 35 days.
An agency representative said officials decided to delay the sale by a few weeks to provide time for a public protest period that was delayed during the government shutdown. It confirmed on its website that it would take comments starting February 11, and that the sale was set for March 28.
Depending on the result of the protests, it is possible for the agency to delay or withdraw nine pieces of land that lie within 16 kilometers of Chaco. The park is a world heritage site -- a place chosen by the United Nations as having cultural, historical, scientific or other importance.
Chaco has massive stone structures as well as kivas – centuries-old rooms that native Pueblo people have used for spiritual ceremonies and political meetings.
For tribes, the fight centers on protecting what remains of a ceremonial and economic center that goes back hundreds of years.
In all, more than 50 pieces of land in New Mexico and Oklahoma will be up for lease.
Kurt Riley is a former governor of the Acoma Pueblo. Last week, during a congressional gathering, he spoke of protesting the bureau’s support for oil and gas development over other interests.
Riley and others said the government shutdown worsened the already worrisome situation of oil and gas expansion in northwestern New Mexico.
In recent years, U.S. land officials have rejected oil and gas exploration on land near Chaco, creating a kind of unofficial protective barrier. In early 2018, for example, Ryan Zinke stopped a lease sale because of cultural concerns after hundreds of people protested. At the time, Zinke was heading the Department of the Interior.
The battle over energy development around Chaco has been around for years. Chaco is bordered by the Navajo Nation and a number of state and federal lands. In 2015, government officials visited the area in hopes of making an agreement between the tribes and energy companies.
The Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs began working together to improve the resource management plan for the San Juan Basin. It covers a large part of northwestern New Mexico and parts of southern Colorado.
The partnership aimed to ensure tribes would be part of the decision making, and that scientific and archaeological studies would be done to ensure cultural sensitivity.
The nine pieces of land are on the outer edge of the informal barrier area near the park. Critics have warned that park visitors might see drilling equipment in some places if those areas were leased. Whether the sound of the equipment could be heard would depend on wind direction. There are also concerns about light pollution affecting Chaco’s night sky.
Paul Reed is with Archaeology Southwest, a research group. He said many communities within the 16 kilometer area need a greater level of protection.
I’m Alice Bryant. And I'm Jonathan Evans.
Susan Montoya Bryan reported this story for the Associated Press. Alice Bryant adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
lease – n. a legal agreement that lets someone use a car, house, etc., for a period of time in return for payment
drill – v. to make a hole in something using a tool or equipment
critical – adj. extremely important
site – n. the place where something is, was or will be located
basin – b. the area of land around a large river and the small rivers that flow into it
archaeological – adj. relating to a science that deals with past human activities by studying the bones, tools and other objects