Land sale near Chaco pushed off under tribal, public pressure


In a surprise move, U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced Thursday (March 1) he was postponing the imminent online auction of thousands of acres worth of oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The lease sale of nearly 4,500 acres of government-owned land in Western New Mexico, known as "Greater Chaco," was scheduled for today (March 8).

The lease sale was heavily scrutinized and protests on multiple fronts, especially because the area around Chaco is rich with historical and cultural ties to the state's pueblos.

Both Picuris and Taos Pueblos, through their membership in the All Pueblo Council of Governors, protested the sale of all 25 parcels around Chaco Canyon that are up for grabs, arguing the BLM is in violation of federal laws that require the agency to identify and analyze the sale's impact on tribes.

"After hearing from tribes, Senators Udall and Heinrich, historic preservation experts, and other stakeholders, I've decided to defer the sale that was scheduled for later this month. 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 Friday (March 2) press release.

"Secretary Zinke has previously assured me that he is committed to moving forward with the BLM and [Bureau of Indian Affairs]'s cooperative approach to drafting a regional management plan for Northwestern New Mexico. I am hopeful he will remain committed to that process," said Udall in a joint press release from New Mexico's Democratic congressional delegation.

"Deferring these parcels was the right, and indeed only legally defensible decision," said Kyle Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center, an environmental nonprofit with an office in Taos that represents anti-fracking groups in the Four Corners region. "Often lost in these discussions, just as industrial oil and gas extraction threatens Greater Chaco's significant cultural and archaeological resources, it likewise harms the area's living Native communities greatly and unjustly."

Another environmental group took a harsher stance toward the news. "A temporary deferment for lands that should never have been offered at all is hardly worthy of loud applause," said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, advocacy director with the Center for Western Priorities, based in Denver.