Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall and tribal and state officials are pushing back on federal plans to hold virtual meetings over future oil and gas development in the northwest region of New Mexico that includes Chaco Canyon.
They are also calling for a 120-day extension of the public comment period about the recently published Farmington Mancos-Gallup Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement. The 90-day public comment period expires May 28.
Northwestern New Mexico is one of the regions of the country hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Udall called a plan released Thursday by Bureau of Land Management Acting Director William Perry Pendley to hold virtual meetings about the plans “appalling.”
“Talk about out of touch,” the senator said.
Udall said the Navajo Nation and pueblos who have cultural ties to the Chaco area “have some of the lowest rates of broadband internet in the state.”
The four virtual meetings are set to be held between May 14 and 18, according to a release by BLM.
“Hosting these virtual meetings will reduce our carbon footprint, decrease the cost to the federal government and to private citizens who must travel to far away locations, and increase by orders of magnitude those able to participate in the meeting itself,” Pendley said in the release.
But Udall said many of the people in the area “aren’t going to be able to jump on non-existent” broadband internet in the area to participate.
And archaeologist Paul Reed, a Chaco scholar with Archaeology Southwest, said the video platform BLM and the Bureau of Indian Affairs planned to use had limitations on the number of participants and would place limits on questions asked about the plans. He also questioned whether the virtual meetings met National Environmental Policy Act requirements.
“With oil prices as low as they are now, now would not seem to be the right time to rush a plan into place,” Reed said.
Udall said the comment period needed to be extended to allow the tribes, pueblos and other communities in the area addressed by the plan to devote their resources “to stop the spread of the virus.”
Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria, the chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said people in the region “need significant time to pore over documents and give significant feedback.” But he said that could not be done while pueblo, tribal, state and local governments were dealing with outbreaks of the coronavirus.
The Navajo Nation would only be able to give “inadequate consultation” with it under lockdown because of COVID-19 outbreaks, Council Delegate Daniel Tso said.
New Mexico’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt on March 20 requesting the 120-day extension. The All Pueblo Council of Governors and the state also sent letters asking for the extension.
Udall, Chavarria and New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Secretary Sarah Propst said they have not heard from the Interior Department about their requests.
Members of the congressional delegation have sponsored legislation that would ban future oil, gas and mineral development within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park on federal land. It would not apply to tribal or private land.
The BLM and BIA are considering several alternatives to resolve land use issues and resource management challenges, the BLM release said. Expanding oil and gas development is among the options.
The management plan amendment and environmental impact study involves more than 4 million acres of land, including about 675,400 acres of Navajo Trust surface, 1,316,200 acres of BLM-managed land and 210,100 acres of individual Indian allotments across 17 Navajo Nation chapters.