By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN
Federal land managers plan to hold a series of virtual meetings on a contested plan that will guide for at least the next decade oil and gas development around a national park and other areas in northwestern New Mexico that are revered by tribes.
A World Heritage site, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and its collection of massive stacked stone walls and circular ceremonial subterranean rooms called kivas have been at the center of a decades-long fight over drilling in northwestern New Mexico. Historians say the area contains the remnants of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization that aligned its structures with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon.
The first meeting scheduled by the Bureau of Land Management will be May 14. Four others will follow, all of them streamed via social media. Officials said the online presentations will give people a chance to learn about the proposal, talk with specialists and ask questions.
William Perry Pendley, the agency's deputy director for policy and programs, touted the benefits of the virtual meetings. He said they will reduce the agency's carbon footprint, expand the number of people who can participate and reduce costs for the government and members of the public who would otherwise be traveling to attend.
"We are excited to be able to use technology to meet the requirements of federal law that we engage and involve the American public in our decision-making process, especially as to such an important resource management plan," he said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Environmentalists, some tribes and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have asked for the agency to extend the public comment period on the proposed changes to the resource management plan. They say federal officials should wait until the coronavirus outbreak subsides so the public has more opportunity to participate in the process.
Many of the communities that would be affected by the proposal have been hit hard by the pandemic, so Democrat U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico, the All Pueblo Council of Governors, New Mexico's energy secretary and others were renewing their call for extra time and planned to air their concerns Friday.
U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, a New Mexico Democrat and vice chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, is concerned about the disenfranchisement of people who lack internet access in what is a rural part of New Mexico. Haaland, Laguna and Jemez Pueblo, called the virtual meetings unworkable for families that will be affected by the decision.
"By moving forward, the department is failing to fulfill its trust and treaty obligations to Native Americans, and it is failing to protect a national treasure," she said Thursday.
The Trump administration, which has expressed frustration at environmental objections that it says are unnecessarily slowing approval for interstate oil and gas pipelines and other big projects, has proposed restricting the timelines and venues for legally required hearings and public comment periods overall. It also has opened the door to holding more public hearings online, a move opponents contend is intended to give ordinary people and communities less opportunity to speak up and fight or support a federal government action.
While drilling is off-limits within the park's boundaries, concerns in recent years have expanded beyond environmental effects to the preservation of cultural landmarks. Tribes, environmentalists and archaeologists all warn that unchecked development could compromise significant spots outside Chaco's boundaries.
While tribal leaders from outside the area want to halt drilling around Chaco, top Navajo Nation leaders have been more reserved as oil and gas provide revenue for the tribe and for individual Navajo property owners. Navajo lawmakers voted in January to support a buffer around the park only half the size of the one outlined in federal legislation pending in Congress.
The federal government in late February made public a list of possible alternatives for managing development in the area, which includes the San Juan Basin — one of the nation's oldest oil and gas basins. Critics complained the options failed to take into account the cumulative costs of increased drilling and threats to the cultural sites.
Officials with the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs indicated their preference for an alternative that would "balance community needs and development" while limiting effects on the traditional, socioeconomic and cultural way of life of those who call the area home.
The proposal will guide decisions for 10 to 15 years across an area that encompasses more than 6,500 square miles (nearly 17,000 square kilometers). That includes federal land, Navajo trust land and allotments owned by individual Navajos.
Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer contributed to this report.