Navajo leaders are torn when it comes to energy development

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ALBUQUERQUE — Leaders from the nation’s largest Native American reservation and pueblos throughout New Mexico are putting more pressure on federal land managers to curb oil and gas development in the northwest corner of the state.

The Navajo Nation has sent a letter to the Bureau of Land Management seeking a moratorium on drilling and lease sales across a wide swath of land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors also has raised concerns, and Democratic lawmakers have introduced memorials calling for more consultation among tribes and the federal government.

The pressure comes as environmental groups look to build support for their years-long campaign aimed at fossil fuel development in the Four Corners region, from coal mines and coal-fired power plants to proposed pipelines and the recent uptick in oil and gas drilling in the San Juan Basin.

While the campaign has focused in years passed on pollution concerns, the tribes’ cultural ties to Chaco and the archaeological sites that are scattered across the northwestern quadrant of the state have intensified the debate, drawing the attention of even some congressional representatives.

RELATED: BLM goes forward with land sale near Chaco Canyon

A board member of the Navajo Nation’s association of medicine men has spoken out against drilling at tribal council committee meetings, and Navajo President Russell Begaye wrote in his letter to federal officials earlier this month that increased drilling is interrupting the daily lives of his people and threatening sacred sites.

"We are descendants from the Chaco Canyon area. We are connected to these lands spiritually," Begaye said in a statement. "The voices of our ancestors live in this area and any disturbance to this area is culturally and morally insensitive."

But Navajo leaders are torn when it comes to energy development. The tribe’s extensive mineral resources are among Indian Country’s most valuable and they provide a significant chunk of the tribe’s revenues.

For example, despite pollution concerns, Navajo officials have been scrambling to save a coal-fired power plant in northeastern Arizona and the mine that feeds it, both of which account for hundreds of jobs on a reservation where unemployment is about eight times higher than the national rate.

RELATEDNavajo Nation, Hopi and regulator oppose closure of power plant

Some local Navajo leaders are pushing the tribe to shift to renewable energy development, but such projects would still require reviews to determine potential impacts on the environment and cultural resources.

As for oil and gas drilling, the Bureau of Land Management has already established a 10-mile buffer around the park and is developing a new resource management plan for millions of acres in the region. Federal officials have agreed to consider the cultural significance of sites as part of that effort.

Agency spokeswoman Donna Hummel said tribal meetings and government-to-government consultations will continue to be offered to help inform the agency’s oil and gas decisions.

The Navajo Nation’s Historic Preservation Department is also requesting the agency draft a management plan specifically for cultural resources. The preservation department has said it doesn’t have all traditional cultural properties and sacred areas documented within the basin.

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