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Concerns about moving forward with land use plan impacting Greater Chaco expressed

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — While the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs hosted virtual meetings to answer questions related to the amendment to the Farmington Field Office’s Resource Management Plan, officials from the two entities spent some of the time explaining why they are moving forward with the process in the middle of a pandemic.

Some of the people who participated in the Aug. 28 session expressed concern that the virtual meetings limited the ability for people who live in the area near Chaco Culture National Historical Park to have their questions answered.

The BLM previously had a series of virtual meetings in May before the deadline was extended to Sept. 25.

The resource management plan amendment looks at land use, specifically oil and gas development, in the field office's jurisdiction, including land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Shortly after the two agencies released the draft environmental impact statement for public comment, the COVID-19 pandemic ended in-person meetings.

Archaeologist Paul Reed leads a tour of Pierre's Site in 2015 near the edge of the 10 mile Chaco buffer zone.

“We’re trying to find new ways to continue operating and right now that’s virtually,” said BLM public affairs specialist Jillian Aragon.

Al Elser, the BLM's Farmington Field Office district manager, emphasized that the agency has been working on the amendment for more than six years and has had numerous outreach efforts during that time period.

Field Manager Rick Fields echoed those comments.

“This plan is a product of public engagement,” he said.

In addition, officials pointed out that only the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior can extend the comment period, as he did earlier this year. They pointed to a 2017 secretarial order that requires them to meet certain time frames.

Four members of New Mexico's Congressional delegation — Sen. Martin Heinrich, Sen. Tom Udall, Rep. Deb Haaland and Rep. Ben Ray Luján — sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt on Aug. 26 asking that the process be delayed until the pandemic has passed.

Rep. Deb Haaland, D-NM, sits at Pueblo Bonito in April 2019 at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Rebecca Sobel, climate and energy campaigner for Wild Earth Guardians, said the majority of comments that the BLM received during the scoping meetings prior to releasing the draft amendment opposed increased drilling. The draft plan would allow for more drilling closer to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

She also expressed concern that ethnographic studies will not be included in the amendment.

Congress allocated $1 million previously toward a cultural study and the Congressional delegation also encouraged this study to be completed.

"We fail to understand why the BLM continues to move the required cultural study forward on a parallel process to the (resource management plan amendment,)" the letter states. "Instead, the cultural study should be completed first and then used to inform any amendment to the Resource Management Plan. In addition, the public health conditions preventing safe public comment periods for the RMPA may well prevent work on the cultural study. While this may further delay the RMPA process, we fail to see how an adequate RMPA can be completed without full consideration of the study as intended."

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt stands in a room at Pueblo Bonito, Tuesday, May 28, 2019, at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

And Alison Kelly, who attended the meeting, argued that the process was unjust and the people who will be most impacted by the amendment have had limited opportunities to participate because of the pandemic.

“The impacts of fracking on these communities have not been addressed and they need to be addressed before this amendment is sent out,” she said, adding that it does not adequately evaluate the impact of increased drilling on climate change or the health of surrounding communities.

People who did attend the meeting expressed concerns with emissions, impacts on aquifers and other environmental concerns.

Mario Atencio, a member of Navajo Nation, had various questions related to those health impacts, especially in terms of the emissions and their impact on human health.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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