ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is putting the brakes on an upcoming oil and gas lease sale after hearing concerns from American Indian tribal leaders and others about potential effects on numerous cultural sites that dot the northwestern corner of New Mexico.
The surprise move was welcomed Friday by environmental groups and others who had organized around a campaign to flood the Bureau of Land Management with an unprecedented number of protests against the sale.
Zinke told the Albuquerque Journal in an interview Thursday in Washington that the agency would halt the sale of 25 parcels, citing the concerns about cultural impact.
He provided more details Friday, saying he wants the agency to complete an ongoing analysis of nearly 5,500 culture sites in the proposed leasing area.
“I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study,” Zinke said in a statement.
The planned lease sale marked the latest flare-up in a long-running dispute over management of vast expanses of land surrounding Chaco park. In 2014, similar concerns boiled over, resulting in the agency considering nearly 120 appeals.
Efforts in recent years to petition the federal government to set aside large parts of the Chaco region as an area of critical environmental concern have been unsuccessful.
More recently, tribal leaders and other critics have asked for a moratorium on drilling, saying increased development has the potential to destroy parts of the landscape that could provide a better understanding of the ancient civilization that once inhabited the area.
The All Pueblo Council of Governors, which represents 20 Native American communities, submitted its protest in early January. The group accused federal officials of violating preservation laws by not identifying the pueblos’ historic and cultural properties that could potentially be located within the areas up for lease.
The Navajo Nation and Democratic members of New Mexico’s congressional delegation also have raised concerns, with some elected officials calling for the federal agency to use discretion when deciding which parcels are leased.
“Deferring these parcels was the right and indeed only legally defensible decision,” Kyle Tisdel with the Western Environmental Law Center said in a statement. “Necessary safeguards, analysis and tribal consultation must take place before we consider any further leasing and development of greater Chaco’s treasured landscapes.”
The Bureau of Land Management in recent years has deferred the leasing of parcels within a 10-mile buffer around Chaco. Planning in partnership with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs also is ongoing to update the resource management plan that guides energy development and recreation on federal lands throughout the region.
Zinke acknowledged that not everyone is happy about next week’s sale being deferred.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association said Friday the deferred sale will mean deferred revenues for New Mexico and its public schools, which rely in part on money generated by oil and gas development.
Revenue from the sale of federal leases and a percentage of royalties collected from resulting production is shared between the federal government and the states.
“We look forward to a rescheduled lease sale so that producers can continue to grow the economy and provide jobs to the San Juan community,” said Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the industry group.
Bureau of Land Management officials in New Mexico could not say when the review of the cultural sites will be finished.