SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — It was supposed to be a virtual public meeting focused on a review of a proposed plan that will govern oil and gas drilling and other development across a vast corner of northwestern New Mexico that is home to a national park and spots important to Native American tribes.
Instead, Thursday's meeting hosted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs quickly shifted to a steady stream of criticism from tribal members and environmentalists who took issue with the virtual platform.
They argued that those who will be most affected by the plan aren't able to comment because they live in rural areas without adequate broadband and poor cellphone service. They also pointed to the significant effects the coronavirus pandemic has had on the Navajo Nation and some New Mexico pueblos.
Marissa Naranjo, a policy director with the All Pueblo Council of Governors, warned federal officials that the group's leadership would not be able to attend Thursday's meeting or any of the others planned in the coming days because their attention is focused on the outbreak.
With few resources and lockdowns that have limited tribal operations, she said reviewing the federal government's documents in time to submit meaningful comments before the May 28 deadline will be nearly impossible.
The pueblo governors, the New Mexico congressional delegation and others have asked repeatedly over recent weeks for the comment period to be extended.
"The situation on the ground has only grown more dire since our first request," Naranjo said, pointing to the surge of cases on the Navajo Nation and in McKinley and San Juan counties.
Nearly all of the nearly 20 people who offered comments Thursday reiterated the need for more time.
Rebecca Sobel with the group WildEarth Guardians said the virtual meetings fall short of the federal government's trust and treaty obligations to tribes.
"This process has systemically marginalized tribal and public input and it threatens to cement a legacy of industrialized fracking across this sacred landscape," she said.
The Bureau of Land Management has not responded to the requests. In a statement to The Associated Press, the agency said it was taking the requests under consideration and noted that at this time the 90-day comment period was scheduled to close May 28.
At the start of the virtual meeting, federal officials acknowledged the challenges presented by the pandemic and said the use of technology was aimed at keeping workers and the public safe while moving ahead with important projects such as amending the resource management plan for parts of the San Juan Basin.
The fight over drilling here has been ongoing for years. Environmentalists are concerned about contamination, while archaeologists and tribes worry about the effects of unchecked development on cultural resources that lay beyond the boundaries of the protected Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
A World Heritage site, Chaco includes stacked stone remnants of what historians say was once a hub of indigenous civilizational. Some of the structures are aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon.
The Bureau of Land Management has been deferring interest by the oil and gas industry in parcels within a 10-mile (16-kilometer) radius of Chaco to address the concerns. Federal legislation aims to codify that practice, essentially establishing a buffer around the park.
The alternatives being considered as part of amending the management plan cover thousands of square miles of federal land, property belonging to the Navajo Nation and allotments owned by individual Navajos.
The preferred option calls for balancing community. interests. Development would likely still result in more than 1,800 new wells on federal land in the planning area over the next 20 years but there would be more stipulations for how that development happens. The number of new wells under the cultural preservation option would be less.
Some of those who commented Thursday said the agency should consider the recent meltdown of the oil market due to a price war and economic fallout from the pandemic.
"This area is a bust up here," said Mike Eisenfeld with the San Juan Citizens Alliance. "It's time to start thinking about a post-oil and gas world."