Susan Montoya Bryan
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Environmentalists want federal land managers to suspend efforts to amend a plan that would guide oil and gas development and other activities near Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
They sent a letter Thursday to Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, saying the coronavirus pandemic has prevented meaningful in-person consultation with tribes and others who would be affected by the decision.
Officials held five virtual public meetings earlier this year and extended the public comment period to Sept. 25. Four more meetings were held in August, but critics say those too were inadequate.
A coalition of more than 50 groups signed the letter. They argue that low-income and minority communities will be disproportionately harmed as they are located on the frontlines of oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin.
"Environmental justice must be served," the groups said in the letter. "In the midst of the public health and economic emergency caused by the COVID-19 crisis, we urge you to protect the most vulnerable New Mexicans from the dangers and insecurity that result from the public health crisis, not take advantage of our inability to engage in ... decision making."
Legislation that would make federal land within a 10-mile radius of the park off-limits is pending in Congress.
New Mexico pueblos with ancestral links to the region around Chaco park have been outspoken about their desire to halt oil and gas drilling in the area, saying they fear culturally significant sites beyond the park boundaries would be at risk with added development. In recent years, they joined with environmentalists who have long been critical of drilling in northwestern New Mexico.
Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation, which controls large swaths of land in the basin, has been more reserved with its stance on amending the resource management plan for the area. The tribe supports a smaller buffer around the park, as revenue from development on adjacent tribal land and parcels owned by individual Navajos account for a significant source of revenue for the impoverished area.
The request from environmentalists for a pause in the process comes just weeks after a coalition of tribes and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation asked federal officials for more time to consider the proposal.