BLM, BIA hold final scoping meeting in Shiprock

Several environmental groups were present at today's meeting, posting signs opposing oil and gas development in the Chaco area

Leigh Black Irvin

SHIPROCK — A public scoping meeting presented at the Shiprock Chapter house today by local officials of the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs to address oil and gas development drew a large crowd but was much less eventful than a November meeting at the same site.

Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie addresses the crowd at a Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs scoping meeting on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Today's meeting was the last in a series of 10 gatherings held primarily at various Navajo chapter houses over the past few months in an effort to obtain input from the public about oil and gas development on public and tribal lands. The federal agencies will use information obtained during the scoping meetings to analyze the possible impacts of industry development for the purpose of preparing a resource management plan amendment (RMPA). The planning area includes mineral leasing and oil and gas development on lands not far from Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The calm nature of today's meeting contrasted with the first meeting in the series, which was held Nov. 10 at the Shiprock Chapter house. That gathering ended abruptly when Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie insisted that a public forum be a part of the meeting. BLM officials refused to allow that, and the meeting was adjourned.

After consideration by federal officials, all of the subsequent scoping meetings have included an open comment period.

At today's meeting, BLM District Manager Victoria Barr explained to the audience how the idea for the scoping meetings came about.

"BLM started working on this amendment in 2014 and realized how important it is to look at issues in the checkerboard area, and we also realized how important it was to work with BIA," Barr said. "We've been hearing a wide range of comments, and will take all of the comments into account when we make our decisions."

Daniel Tso, left, addresses an audience gathered for a scoping meeting on Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house. Holding a map of Bureau of Land Management land near Chaco Culture National Historical Park are Kendra Pinto, center, a resident of a parcel of land that was sold by the BLM for industry development, and Miya King-Flaherty, public lands fellow with the Sierra Club's Rio Grande Chapter.

Farmington BLM Field Manager Richard Fields said that during the scoping sessions, about 1,000 people have provided comments, in addition to the written and mailed comments the office has received.

"We have made no decisions yet," Fields said. "We really need your comments to drive our decisions."

Such large-scale cooperative information gathering between two federal agencies is rare, Donna Hummel, the BLM's office of communications chief, told The Daily Times.

"For BLM to hold 10 scoping meetings in conjunction with BIA is pretty unheard of," Hummel said. "It's been a huge effort, and it's something we haven't seen before in this area. But it really makes sense because of the checkerboard nature of the land and because of tribal concerns."

Hummel said the next phase will involve the agencies developing a draft of the RMPA, which is projected to be completed by winter 2018. After the draft is published, another period of public comment sessions will take place.

Several environmental groups were present at today's meeting, posting signs opposing oil and gas development in the Chaco Canyon area.

Audience members listen to a presentation given by Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs officials during a scoping meeting Thursday at the Shiprock Chapter house.

Rebecca Sobel of the Santa-Fe based environmental group WildEarth Guardians came to the meeting to display literature opposing industry development on public and tribal lands.

"BLM continues to issue drilling permits without assessing the impacts," said Sobel, who also attended a similar public scoping session held Wednesday at San Juan College.

"At (Wednesday's) meeting, I never heard officials talk about the Navajo communities living near rigs," she said. "All people are asking for is the right to live healthy lives."

Daniel Tso, a former Torreon Council delegate, organized a protest on Jan. 17 at the BLM state office in Santa Fe to try to halt the online sale of 843 acres of public land and minerals near Chaco Canyon for fracking purposes. Despite the protests, the BLM proceeded with the sale on Jan. 25 and received bids of $2,935,450 for four federal leases. Tso addressed those gathered for today's meeting.

"We have laws, too," he said. "L stands for land, A stands for air, W stands for water and S stands for sacred. That's where our approach is from."

Shiprock Chapter President Yazzie also addressed the crowd, asking that federal officials accurately report the concerns that have been expressed during all of the scoping meetings and for them to take all of these concerns into account.

"As original inhabitants of these lands, we are the original landlords, and no one is taking that away from us," he said. "The destruction that's been occurring in the last 200 years — gouging the earth for minerals, gas and oil — we all know we are hurting the earth, the land, the water. By extension, we are hurting the people. I look at my grandkids and ask, 'How is your world going to be in 50 years?' It's frightening to think of what earth we're leaving for these little babies."

Leigh Black Irvin is the business editor for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4621.