ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Democratic members of New Mexico's congressional delegation are pushing federal officials to uphold an agreement that limits oil and gas leasing on public land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The Bureau of Land Management previously agreed to defer all leases within a 10-mile radius around the park as the agency works to update its resource management plan for northwestern New Mexico. The agency is also working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs on how to best protect archaeological and cultural sites in the region.
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich and Rep. Ben Ray Lujan say the Bureau of Land Management recently began the process of leasing areas within the buffer zone. They're asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to maintain the buffer until the planning process is complete.
The delegates pointed to New Mexico's abundant natural resources and its history and culture in a letter sent Wednesday to Zinke.
"The need to balance the use of our resources with the protection of our cultural heritage is no more clear than in the area surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park," the lawmakers wrote. "The park itself, but also the greater Chaco area, contains ancient Puebloan roads, kivas, sacred sites, artifacts and great mysteries regarding the people who inhabited Chaco."
The request to keep in place the 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco park is supported by the Navajo Nation and the All Pueblo Council of Governors.
While fossil fuel development in the region has long been a target of environmentalists, the campaign to curb drilling shifted focus in recent years from pollution concerns to the cultural ties that Native American tribes have to Chaco and the archaeological sites that are scattered across the northwestern quadrant of the state.
Earlier this year, the Navajos sought a moratorium on drilling and lease sales while the All Pueblo Council of Governors raised their own concerns.
Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archelogy Southwest, said his organization is pleased that the congressional delegation is urging the Interior Department to maintain the buffer area around Chaco. He said that despite nearly a century of oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin, the area around the park remains relatively pristine.
Industry officials on Friday reiterated their sentiment that developers can operate in the area in such a way that protects cultural sites linked to Chaco.
Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said no one in the industry disputes the significance of Chaco or the strong desire to protect the area's cultural resources for future generations. He said regulations already in place require reviews to ensure important areas are not disrupted.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Chaco park includes what's left of an ancient civilization whose monumental architecture and cultural influences have been a source of mystery for years. While the park represents the heart of the area, numerous archaeological sites lie well outside park boundaries.
Regional BLM spokeswoman Megan Crandall said the agency has just started the planning process for the lease sale in March 2018.
"At this point in the process, no leasing decisions have been made for any of the parcels nominated for potential sale in March," she said. "During the public planning process, we will complete an environmental assessment that analyzes each parcel nominated for potential lease, including the parcels near Chaco Canyon."
That draft assessment is expected to be available for public comment in late September.