21 september 2018

Tribes to Zinke: No new drilling in Chaco Canyon

Rob Hotakainen, E&E News reporter, E&ENews Friday, September 21, 2018

When Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put the brakes on an oil and gas lease sale in New Mexico last March, he said he wanted to give federal officials more time to study the impact on sacred American Indian sites and cultural artifacts.

Tribal members came to Washington, D.C., this week to deliver another message: People who live on the remote land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park are part of the equation, too.

"All these oil sites are being put next to our homes, and why?" asked Kendra Pinto, from the Counselor Chapter of the Navajo Nation. "Chaco is often referred to as a sacred space, with sacred sites and sacred ruins. But also it's a living community and sometimes that doesn't even make the radar, that people are still there."

The issue is gaining a higher profile as opponents apply more pressure on Zinke and the Bureau of Land Management, hoping to stop a proposed lease sale now set for early December.

Julia Bernal, co-director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, said she was eager to go to Capitol Hill to talk to her state's two Democratic senators, too.

"It's not just about protecting natural and cultural resources — it's about protecting people, too," Bernal said.

Athan Manuel, director of the Sierra Club's land protection program, said opponents are "going to try to pull every single lever we can pull" to protect Chaco Canyon.

"It's not just the park," he said. "It's the larger Chaco Canyon basin, too. We want to do as much as we can to protect as many places and as many people as we can. People still live there, and that community has been exploited enough."

Last month, a coalition of tribal, environmental and business groups urged BLM to hold public hearings before offering dozens of parcels at the December sale. The groups include WildEarth Guardians, Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council, all of which are involved in litigation over drilling.

In their letter to BLM, the groups noted that Zinke wanted to defer the sale on March 8 "due to cultural resource concerns and public controversy and worries" over the impacts of leasing.

"The same issues remain in relation to the December lease sale," said the letter. "And while we urge the BLM to similarly defer its leasing plans, we also believe the proposed action warrants a public forum for discourse and scrutiny."

It's uncertain what has been done since March, but tribal officials and the Sierra Club say there's no evidence that the federal government has done any additional study of potential impacts on cultural artifacts in the area to comply with Zinke's request.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment.

In May, Democratic New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich introduced a bill that would withdraw 316,000 acres of federal land surrounding the park from future energy or mineral development. The bill would also establish a 909,000-acre buffer zone around the park, which is home to 1,000-year-old Ancestral Puebloan ruins.

While the bill appears headed for failure in the current session of Congress, drilling opponents hope the senators will revive it in January when a new session begins.

"We just want to encourage them, don't back off, keep at it, even though you think it's not going to go anywhere, even though it's sitting idle now," said Sam Sage, the Counselor Navajo Chapter's community coordinator, who also joined this week's lobbying trip.

In the long run, Sage said, the best answer to stop drilling will be to get a "change in administration," with President Trump and Zinke no longer involved.

"That's about the only thing," he said.

Tribal leaders had meetings planned both on Capitol Hill and with officials from BLM, EPA and others.

"Not everyone is given the chance to come up to D.C. to talk to senators and stuff," Pinto said. "Everyone should be given the option."

But Bernal said it can be difficult to get access to some agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

"It's ridiculous that we can't even get a meeting," she said. "There are these bureaucratic ladders that we're constantly having to climb, just to even talk to them."

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