FARMINGTON — The Hopi Tribe has submitted comments to the Bureau of Land Management that are critical of potential drilling near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Oil and gas firms have nominated 38 oil and gas leases, totaling 19,103 acres, for a January lease sale. The BLM is evaluating the parcels for the lease sale, and it is not yet clear which parcels will be included or if some will be withdrawn.

One of the parcels is less than a quarter-mile from the park's boundary. The park is a World Heritage Site.

The tribe has also corresponded with New Mexico's congressional delegation on the issue.

Oil and gas leasing and development on lands surrounding Chaco Canyon would "threaten the park and the greater Chaco landscape," Hopi Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa said in an Aug. 16 letter to Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M. and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-Nambé.

He added, "the commingling of energy development and resource protection around Chaco will inevitably lead to adverse effects to cultural resources significant to the Hopi Tribe."

The tribe traces some of its clans to the ancestral Puebloans who inhabited areas in and around the park a millennium ago.

Shingoitewa urged the delegation to help protect the Chaco landscape.

"Without your intervention, we believe the BLM (Farmington district office) intends to lease these parcels regardless of any additional information we or anyone else provides regarding the significance of Chaco Canyon," he said in the letter.

An environmental assessment that will detail which parcels the BLM recommends for leasing is likely to be released shortly after Labor Day, said Gary Torres, field manager for the BLM Farmington field office. He said specialists are at work on the document.

Visitors walk to an ancestral Puebloan ruin June 2013 at Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
Visitors walk to an ancestral Puebloan ruin June 2013 at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. (Magdalena Wegrzyn The Daily Times)

"What we're concentrating on is to get the analysis out," he said. "There hasn't been any decision made."

Drillers led by Encana Corp. and WPX Energy are exploring for oil in the south San Juan Basin because oil remains much more valuable than natural gas, which dominates the northern end of the basin. The BLM says it will not identify the company or companies that nominated the parcels until after the January lease sale.

The BLM has met with tribes, environmentalists and others to explain the agency's process and to listen to them. Outside groups are getting nervous as they await the analysis, Torres said.

"I understand why they're nervous," he said. "We do feel like we have gone through extensive efforts to meet with groups and hear their concerns and make sure we're aware."

Torres said he's proud of the agency's work on the environmental assessment.

"We're really committed to just going through the process," he said. "Whether we lease or don't lease, we can't be arbitrary and capricious. We have to have some kind of rationale."

Chuck Slothower covers business for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4638 and cslothower@daily-times.com. Follow him @Dtchuck on Twitter.