Jon Austria   The Daily Times
Jon Austria The Daily Times (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

FARMINGTON — Environmental activists on Friday expressed concern about a proposed federal lease sale that could lead to oil and gas exploration near Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

The area in the southeast San Juan Basin is a World Heritage Site, and is important to the cultures of several nearby tribes.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has deferred the lease sale of 18,500 acres north of the park, but environmentalists expect the lease sale to resurface in January.

"As native people, we do have sacred sites," said Samuel Sage, who lives on the Counselor Chapter of the Navajo Nation. "To them, their sacred sites are a building, a church."

Chaco Canyon is important in Navajo tradition, he said.

"It has a very significant meaning to a lot of the traditional stories, traditional religion," he said.

Chaco Canyon is home to ruins left by ancestral Puebloans who lived there between 850 and 1250 A.D.

Oil and gas firms have renewed their interest in the area as producing oil from the Mancos Shale has become feasible, said Mike Eisenfeld, New Mexico energy coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental group based in Durango, Colo.

Eisenfeld said San Juan Citizens Alliance intends to fight the proposal.

Hydraulic fracturing in the area is beginning to cause harm, Sage said.

"The fracking that is taking place is getting destructive," he said. "The natural springs are beginning to disappear."

Hydraulic fracturing is a drilling process, common in the San Juan Basin, that involves injecting high-pressure water, sand and chemicals underground to ease access to oil and gas deposits.

The comments came at a forum Friday night at San Juan College hosted by the Sierra Club. Some industry representatives from companies such as Dugan Production Corp. and Coleman Oil & Gas attended the forum, but they made no public comment.

Jon Austria   The Daily Times
Jon Austria The Daily Times (Jon Austria/The Daily Times)

Tweeti Blancett, a rancher who lives on the Animas River, said she has repeatedly rejected offers to drill on her land or provide access to adjacent public lands. She said the BLM has not balanced multiple uses on public lands, as the agency is charged with doing.

"The bottom line is multiple use does not work," she said. "It does not work when you have one industry that has dominated any other resource, and by its nature, it has to dominate."

Sage said economic interests were overwhelming other considerations.

"The only thing they see is the dollar sign," he said.

Chuck Slothower can be reached at cslothower@daily-times.com; 505-564-4638. Follow him on Twitter @DTChuck.