BLM/BIA officials: Scoping meetings yield good feedback
FARMINGTON — After a rough start, scoping meetings held by the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs at various locations throughout the Navajo Nation on a possible revision of oil and gas leasing procedures, have been proceeding as planned, according to Farmington BLM spokesman Zach Stone.
The meetings, which have been taking place during November and will culminate with a final meeting at the Navajo Nation Museum on Dec. 2, are part of a joint effort to address concerns regarding mineral leasing and development activity around Chaco Canyon and other areas on the Navajo Nation. Following the public scoping period, which ends Dec.20, the agencies will jointly analyze issues and concerns related to impacts of industry activities, and will prepare an amendment to the existing Resource Management Plan for these areas.
The first scoping meeting, which took place at the Shiprock Chapter House on Nov. 10, ended abruptly when chapter president Duane “Chili” Yazzie questioned the meeting’s format, which did not include a public forum that would allow attendees to speak in front of the group. Yazzie objected because, he said, a public sharing of views is more appropriate for the Navajo culture.
BLM Field Manager Richard Fields explained to Yazzie that the meetings were not meant to be a consultation and public comments were not part of the program, though input was being sought at individual tables and in written format. If Yazzie insisted on holding a public meeting, Fields said the meeting would be shut down. Yazzie said that in that case, the meeting should end, which prompted BIA and BLM to pack up and leave the chapter house.
Following discussions by BLM/BIA meeting facilitators after the incident in Shiprock, a similar scoping meeting held later that same day at Huerfano Chapter House included a public forum section, as have all subsequent meetings held this month.
“The scoping meetings have given us an opportunity to provide information on the Resource Management Plan Amendment and the Environmental Impact Statement,” said Stone. “We have received helpful comments in the meetings, all of which will be incorporated into the amendment and impact statement.”
Stone said adjustments to the meeting format have been well-received, and said plans to reschedule the Shiprock meeting were in the works.
Meeting attendance continues to grow, he said, and a meeting that took place at Whitehouse Lake Chapter House on Nov. 15 had over 80 attendees, and was conducted entirely in Navajo.
“We’re very encouraged as far as turnout goes, and how it keeps increasing. We’re also encouraged with the comments we’re receiving,” said Stone.
Before the Shiprock meeting was shut down, several meeting attendees provided comments to The Daily Times.
Chuck Haven, who works in Shiprock, said he came to the meeting because he’s curious about what the BLM and BIA have planned. After perusing the maps on display showing the areas involved in the assessment, Haven said he was surprised at the checkerboard-nature of proposed areas of exploration on the Nation. The "checkerboard" term describes land with parcels owned by the federal and state governments, by private individuals and by the Navajo Nation.
“I’m very interested in what’s going on, because it does have an impact on our culture,” said Haven.
Haven also said he’s worried about cultural preservation of sites on Navajo Nation land, as well as the environmental impact of exploration.
“I’m really against drilling near cultural sites, and am concerned that a lot of the sites are undocumented,” he said.
Some of those attending were reluctant to talk to The Daily Times, or to identify themselves, and Shiprock resident Michael King said he wasn’t surprised at this reaction.
“We see how they’re treating people in North Dakota (in connection with the Dakota Access Pipeline),” he said. “They’re worried there will be blowback for speaking their minds. It is a cool thing, though, that people can actually comment here.”
Regarding the recent presidential election, BLM Field Manager Richard Fields was asked by The Daily Times if he foresees any change in how the BLM will operate under a Trump administration.
“I don’t think it will affect us at all,” he said. “Our mission won’t change. We follow policy sent down from above, and we’re here to serve the people in the U.S.”
Fields said the BLM had a significant backlog in applications for permits to drill, or APDs, prior to the economic downturn, but his office has had a chance to catch up after drilling dwindled to a near stand-still.
On a positive note, Fields said his office has been receiving an increase in APDs within the last few months, and this makes him optimistic about a possible upturn in the industry.
“I think we’re starting to reach the point where we’ve bottomed out, and I hope we’ll see an improvement in production in the (San Juan) Basin. I’m hoping the worst is behind us, and if we do start to see an uptick, we’re prepared to handle that,” Fields said.
Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.