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FARMINGTON — The U.S. Bureau of Land Management favors oil and gas development over all other uses of public lands and doesn't ensure environmental protections for areas such as those near Chaco Culture National Historic Park, according to an environmental group's report released today .

The Wilderness Society made the claim in its June 28 report, "No Exit: Fixing the BLM's Indiscriminate Energy Leasing," but oil and gas and agency officials in New Mexico argue that the BLM oversees public lands fairly with adequate consideration for all possible uses.

According to the report, "90 percent of the public lands managed by (the BLM) are open to oil and gas leasing and mineral resource extraction even in areas of little or no potential for developing these resources." That number leads to a broken multiple land use policy by the BLM and an unfair monopoly by the oil and gas industry at the expense of land use considerations such as conservation, according to the report.

New Mexico Oil and Gas Association President Steve Henke was the BLM's Farmington district manager before he joined the oil and gas advocacy group. Henke said the Wilderness Society is choosing to take "a one-sided view" of the BLM's mission without fully considering the actual land uses in place.

"There's 32 million acres leased for oil and gas — half of those leases have production, about 16 million acres — of the BLM's 250 million acres and there's about 53 million acres that are permanently closed to oil and gas production, one-fifth of the BLM acreage," Henke said. "To suggest that the BLM is somehow out of balance is a broad misrepresentation of the facts. ... I think it's a piece of propaganda to try to influence public opinion to move the federal government and the BLM away from the very legitimate role of minerals development."

Nada Culver, director of the Wilderness Society's Denver, Colo.-based BLM Action Center, said the BLM's decisions on public lands exhibits a trend that has been out of balance in favor of oil and gas development for more than a decade.

"(The BLM) incentivizes speculative leasing," Culver said. "It's very unbalanced. BLM is defaulting to the oil and gas industry. Common sense would tell you, 'Here's some land that has no potential (for oil and gas development),' and in my mind, you would close that land to leasing. Instead, the agency defaults, taking land off the table for conservation, for wildlife. Without protections, you get a backwards result."

Culver said balancing its land-use could be in the works as the agency continues its multiyear effort to draft changes to its policies.

Victoria Barr, district manager for the BLM's Farmington Field Office, said in an email that the agency's draft of its Mancos-Gallup Resource Management Plan amendment and accompanying Environmental Impact Statement, which is taking a new look at land use in the northwest portion of the state, is expected to be completed "sometime in 2017, barring no significant circumstances that may arise."

The draft amendment will, in part, account for new oil and gas technologies, including multistage hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, that made oil and gas development possible in the areas near Chaco park in the Mancos Shale oil play in the southern San Juan Basin in recent years. The agency last updated its land use plan for the region in 2003.

"Leasing of an area for oil and gas, does not preclude other uses, such as recreation, grazing, and cultural resource protection," Barr said.

Barr said the BLM oversees about 18 percent of the surface land within a 10 miles radius of Chaco park. The rest is overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the state or private owners

Earlier this month, the BLM postponed a proposed October lease sale of more than 2,000 acres near Chaco, a Dark Sky designated area and recognized by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site.

The BLM's multi-use mandate is guided by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 along with other laws, Barr said, which guide the agency in considering the potential effects of a proposed action on a multitude of resources, such as migratory birds, recreation, minerals, grazing, wilderness or cultural resources.

Last year, Paul Reed, a Chaco scholar and a preservation archaeologist with Tucson-based Archaeology Southwest, launched the Coalition to Protect the Greater Chaco Landscape.

“As someone who has spent decades studying the archaeology and history of the Chaco Canyon region, I cannot overstate the importance of BLM closing lands to leasing in this area," Reed said in a statement sent to The Daily Times today. "The lands around Chaco are highly significant in their own right, and are also some of the last undeveloped lands in the region. Yet, right now, most of the acreage around Chaco is open to new leasing, even though BLM acknowledges they have little potential for oil and gas development.”

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.

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