Column: BLM should listen to native stakeholders

N.M. Sen. Benny Shendo Jr., D-Jemez Pueblo, and Rep. Georgene Louis, D-Albuquerque

The stakes are high as decisions are made about where to develop oil and gas in our communities and on our sacred lands.

This summer’s massive oil storage tank fire — which burned for days south of Nageezi and forced families to leave their homes — reminds us that native communities must be part of the decision-making process. We must ensure that communities, families and our heritage are taken into account and protected as plans are made that will impact our future.

In the coming months, the Farmington field office of the Bureau of Land Management will complete an amendment to its Resource Management Plan specifically to address oil and gas leasing in the Mancos-Gallup formation of northwestern New Mexico. The decisions made and the vision laid out in this amendment will determine whether and how we balance oil and gas development with the protection of the physical well-being of our communities and the preservation of our cultural traditions for our children and grandchildren.

Let us be clear: We do not oppose energy development. Indeed, we welcome the economic benefits that oil and gas have brought to many of our communities. But, with approximately 90 percent of the BLM-administered land in this region already leased for oil and gas development, the cultural and sacred significance of this landscape necessitates robust stakeholder engagement in the planning process to balance responsible development with conservation in the 10 percent of land that has not yet been leased.

As lawmakers representing diverse constituencies, we call on the BLM to use all the policy tools available when drafting the amendment to ensure a vision and plan that protects the culturally significant Greater Chaco landscape, its many sacred sites and dark night skies, and the clean air and water on which our communities depend.

A Master Leasing Plan is one of the tools that the BLM could use to ensure that Navajo, Pueblo and all other communities are at the table to discuss how responsible energy development proceeds. Other tools that the BLM could integrate into the RMP amendment process include the designation of a landscape-scale Area of Critical Environmental Concern, or ACEC, or the placement of restrictions regarding land disturbance from oil and gas development activities.

We also ask that the BLM continue to work with all stakeholders in the community — including tribal leaders — as they finalize their plans. One way the agency could achieve inclusiveness and transparency is to release the management options it is considering as preliminary alternatives, allowing stakeholders and the public the opportunity to weigh in on issues prior to publication of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement.

The cultural implications of the decisions that will be made in the RMP amendment are enormous. Chaco Canyon and the lands surrounding it contain many ecologically, culturally, spiritually and economically important public lands. This region contains thousands of archaeological sites, some of which are more than 12,000 years old. This area was historically the center of Puebloan culture and economic life with great houses, astronomical observation sites and ceremonial kivas throughout the Four Corners region. These sacred sites continue to be places of prayer and pilgrimage.

These lands also provide immense scientific insight into the history of people and land in northwestern New Mexico. Archaeologists, historians, artists, astronomers and tourists all visit these lands to learn from our past and present. Our cultures, both past and present, are inextricably linked to the land, including those managed by the BLM. The web of dirt roads, well pads, and pipelines associated with energy development now affects much of Greater Chaco’s ancient road network, and the flaring from these facilities affects the region’s night skies and Chaco’s renowned astronomy.

What’s more, these lands continue to be home to families and communities that demand and deserve safe places to live.

We applaud the BLM’s decision to postpone some oil and gas leases, which were scheduled for this fall near Chaco, while the RMP amendment process is finished. And we encourage the BLM to adhere to their own policies, which require that cultural protections and air, land and water conservation be part of the vision contained in the RMP for this landscape in the coming years.

The stakes are undeniably high. But, by involving all stakeholders and listening to all voices, the BLM can amend the Regional Management Plan in the coming months to keep our communities and cultural heritage safe, while responsibly supporting the economic activities that allow these communities to continue to thrive.