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William Perry Pendley discusses Chaco drilling plan, outdoor recreation and energy

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — Bureau of Land Management Deputy Director of Policy and Programs William Perry Pendley, who has been serving as the acting director, disagrees with criticism that community members, especially those who live in the Navajo Nation, were not given adequate opportunities to weigh in on a resource management plan amendment that proposes additional oil and gas extraction closer to Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Opponents say it will lead to thousands of new wells being drilled near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, potentially harming the environment and sacred cultural resources as well as hurting public health.

The BLM and BIA have faced criticism that they did not provide adequate opportunities for Native American communities to participate in the conversations and that the public comment period should be extended in light of the pandemic.

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Pendley discussed the Farmington Field Office’s resource management plan amendment's ongoing comment period, which ends Sept. 25, during an interview with The Daily Times while he visited Farmington this week.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to public input meetings being conducted in a virtual setting, however many of the tribal members who live near Chaco have limited access to broadband.

"With email and voicemail and snail mail, if it's postmarked on Friday, they can still comment," Pendley said. "And I encourage that."

Pendley says the public had plenty of opportunities to engage with the BLM, BIA

Various people, including members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation, have sent letters to the Department of the Interior requesting a delay in the procedures until after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed, which would allow in person meetings.

A pottery sherd is pictured, Tuesday, June 23, 2015, at  Pierre's Ruins, 20-miles north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The BLM is mandated with managing the land for multiple uses, including extractive industries and grazing.

"The bottom line is when we make our decisions, we put our decisions out in front of the public and we ask the public 'okay, here's the way we think we're going to manage these two million acres. Here we're going to do this. We're going to have this activity here, this activity there and so on and so forth. What does the public think about it?' And we receive comments and we respond accordingly and make decisions," he said when asked about balancing those different interests.

He said that is a challenge because "we're writing plans for 230 million people," referencing the population of the United States.

He said that planning process was what the BLM did while drafting the Farmington Field Office resource management plan amendment.

Pendley argues that this resource management plan amendment has had more opportunities for public engagement than most. He said the Farmington Field Office “bent over backwards to make sure the public was involved.”

That involvement dates back to a scoping period in 2014 and the comment period led to 1,800 comments. Then two years later, in 2016 when the BIA joined the effort, there were 10 more scoping meetings. During that comment period, Pendley said there were 16,800 comments received.

William Perry Pendley

Then, in February, the two agencies released the resource management plan amendment for a 90-day comment period that was later extended to Sept. 25.

This included five virtual meetings in May, a radio program in August that allowed people to call in and four virtual meetings in August. The deadline for comments was also extended once, and Pendley said in February officials hand-delivered the documents to 23 chapter houses. Those chapter houses were closed for at least a portion of the comment people

“Some people, you know, they're not happy, but they cannot be unhappy because we have failed to engage the public,” he said. "Because we have engaged the public."

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The plan is controversial because it could lead to increased drilling and some people who live in the area are concerned about the health impacts of extraction as well as the impacts to cultural resources in a sacred landscape.

Those people who live near Chaco Canyon often have limited access to broadband and sometimes do not have cell service, which meant calling in using the telephone numbers provided was not always an option for them.

The Navajo Nation was also hit hard by COVID-19 early on, and critics note that some people pushing for an extension to comments argue that those communities were focused on survival.

A sign at a home in Mexican Springs, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation on May 15, 2020.

Other opponents of the proposed resource management plan amendment say that it is inadequate because it does not include the cultural study that Congress allocated $1 million to complete and it does not fully analyze the impacts of multi-stage fracturing and horizontal drilling. Environmental advocates say the plan could lead to 2,000 to 3,100 new wells on a landscape already dotted by the extractive industry.

 "The use of virtual meetings does not constitute 'meaningful consultation' and this amendment process should be suspended indefinitely until it's safe for tribal citizens and leaders to attend in-person meetings and provide meaningful input. In-person public meetings are essential for this project," said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso in a press release last week. "Many of the affected communities in Eastern Navajo were unable to participate in these virtual sessions because they lack reliable internet access and are focused on keeping safe. It's not unreasonable to suspend this process until a more appropriate time. Furthermore, if the tables were turned and BLM officials lacked adequate broadband, they would be raising red flags and calling on Congress to suspend this process."

Comments can be made by mailing BLM Farmington Field Office, Attn.: Sarah Scott, Project Manager, 6251 College Blvd, Suite A, Farmington, NM 87402 or BIA Navajo Regional Office, Attn.: Robert Begay, Project Manager, P.O. Box 1060, Gallup, NM 87301. People can also call 720-213-5786 or submit comments online.

Pendley discusses his vision for the BLM

Pendley said the vision for the BLM is to be more responsive to the American public and to make lands more accessible for recreational activities. 

The majority of land in many parts of the western United States is owned by the federal government.

"If the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service are not saying 'yeah, we're going to promote jobs, we're going to provide for jobs,' whether it's in recreation or logging or mining or energy, if the federal government does not say yes to that then these local communities are sunk. They won't have jobs. They won't be able to go recreate cause they won't be able to put food on the table," he said.

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Jason Feuilly climbs his unlimited up a rock feature, Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 during the W.E. Rock Grand Nationals at the Brown Spring Campground rock crawl in Glade Run north of Farmington.

As he visited Farmington this week, he stopped by a site in San Juan County where developers are hoping to mine coal, drill for oil and gas and have a solar array at the same location.

"Who would have thought that in the same location we could have all three?" he said.

COVID-19 led to increased use of BLM lands

Pendley  also toured sites like the Glade Run Recreation Area, which he described as a "totally awesome site." He said people who live here and work here can benefit from the outdoor recreation on public lands, which can also draw tourists in and help the economy.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased use of the public lands as people look for safe forms of entertainment and to get out of their houses. While some state parks and national parks closed, the BLM lands remained open.

The rugged terrain of Glade Run Recreation Area attracts hikers and four wheelers alike.

"Essentially Bureau of Land Management recreation lands have been discovered," Pendley said. 

As Pendley visits field offices, he said he is talking to staff about what the BLM should do next as outdoor recreation grows in popularity.

“I don’t think people are going to stop coming to our lands,” Pendley said.

He said the BLM has started a social media campaign to educate land users.

"We're trying to educate visitors about don't start fires, don't dump (trash) on BLM land and play in a safe way because...during the height of the virus our rangers were stretched to the breaking point and we really didn't want to be sending a bunch of EMTs out because somebody didn't recreate in a thoughtful, safe way," he said. 

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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