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FARMINGTON – A coalition of conservationists has launched a campaign to raise awareness over oil and gas operations near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Paul Reed, a Chaco scholar and a preservation archaeologist with Tucson-based Archaeology Southwest, has been working on protecting the Chaco landscape for more than two years with other conservationists. He has just launched a new campaign, the Coalition to Protect the Greater Chaco Landscape.

"Our main goal is the protection of the fragile and irreplaceable landscape associated with Chaco Canyon and the area well beyond Chaco," Reed said.

The group also just rolled out a website, www.protectgreaterchaco.org, to help raise awareness over the World Heritage Site and surrounding area.

Reed said the group was spurred into greater action by the Bureau of Land Management's Farmington Field Office's efforts to update a 12-year-old plan that manages oil and gas activity in the region.

This year, the BLM has been working on a draft of its amended resource management plan and accompanying environmental impact statement. The new draft amendment will, in part, incorporate oil and gas technologies, including horizontal drilling, that came into use after the 2003 plan was published.

"This plan ... basically did not anticipate the kinds of activity we have seen," Reed said.

In recent years, advances in technologies like horizontal drilling and multistage hydraulic fracturing have led to an uptick in oil and gas drilling into the Mancos shale play a mile underground in areas near the Chaco park.

Reed said that activity has diminished the park's inherent splendor and put cultural resources at risk.

One of the group's initiatives is to support and emulate the BLM's Master Leasing Plan approach to negotiating how to balance the divergent interests between the oil and gas industry and Chaco conservationists, and avoid costly lawsuits.

"I think the value of the MLP approach is that all parties can be at the table from the beginning and express their needs," Reed said in a follow-up email. "Oil companies can (identify) the areas of greatest interest for drilling and development and conservationists can talk about the areas they would like to see set aside. It really is a collaborative tool. But, all the parties have to engage. Just filing a lawsuit, in my view, does not get the job done. On the other hand, if industry refuses to negotiate on areas to be developed or preserved, it's the same result. So, our coalition is about the middle ground and getting all stakeholders to the negotiating table."
Three weeks ago, Reed said the group met in Farmington with officials from Encana Corp., WPX Energy and ConocoPhillips — all oil and gas companies with assets in the San Juan Basin — to begin a dialogue.

Encana has operated wells in the San Juan Basin since 2011. Company spokesman Doug Hock said he and other officials from the Canadian oil company, which has an office in Farmington, were at the recent meeting.

"Yes, we did attend that meeting. We were there strictly to listen," Hock said.

Encana has about 70 wells in the San Juan Basin, all of them in New Mexico, Hock said in an email.

"The closest one to the park is 16 miles away," he said. "All aspects of oil and gas development are overseen by a robust framework of federal and state regulations."

Hock said that one example of the regulatory protection available to the park amid oil and gas development can be seen in the process operators must follow to drill.

"Each proposed development area undergoes an archaeological survey before any disturbance," Hock said. "The New Mexico Historic Preservation Division weighs in on potential impacts to cultural sites, and BLM decides whether and where development can begin. When drilling sites are permitted near sensitive areas, those areas are marked off with stakes or fences to keep workers from walking or driving on them."

To kick start the campaign and gather divergent interests together over the issue, the group will host several meetings this weekend in Albuquerque.

"This is the beginning of a process," Reed said. "We're not going to figure it all out on Friday, but we are optimistic that, if we can keep all the parties engaged, that we'll end up at a better place."

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

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