U.S. land managers have deferred the sale of oil and gas leases for land parcels near a UNESCO World Heritage site in New Mexico and other places sacred to Native American tribes, the federal government announced Feb. 8, following a growing backlash against the plan.

Democratic lawmakers, tribal leaders and conservationists had criticized the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for going forward with the plan at Chaco Culture National Historical Park as well as sites in Oklahoma despite the recent government shutdown.

"It's a mistake that while critical public services were shuttered for 35 days during the government shutdown, BLM still moved forward with this opaque process," U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico) told the Associated Press in late January.

After the BLM revered course, Udall issued a statement on Feb. 8 commending the agency for doing "the right thing" and delaying the sale. "Some places are just too special to lose," Udall said. "I look forward to the BLM taking the right step and ceasing leasing in this important area until they can complete a full and meaningful assessment that listens to public and Tribal voices."

Important and beloved area

Chaco is a UNESCO World Heritage site noted for its "monumental public and ceremonial buildings and its distinctive architecture — it has an ancient urban ceremonial center that is unlike anything constructed before or since." The park and the surrounding area carries with it considerable importance for ancestral Puebloan culture, with many structures dating back to pre-Columbian times. Some buildings are even aligned with the cycles of the sun and the moon.

The site is largely isolated, accessible only by dirt roads. The isolation of the park, according to AP, is part of its part of its allure. Trails, like the Pueblo Alto Trail, can reach up to 300 feet (91 meters), offering stunning views of the desert landscape, the Puebloan structures and — once the sun goes down — the night sky in all its glory, with nary a modern structure in sight.

Given its cultural and natural significance, Chaco has traditionally been given a wide berth by federal land managers, resulting in what the AP calls "an informal buffer." The federal government has declined to allow oil and gas exploration on the land near the park in the past; even recently resigned Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke halted a sale of land near the park in 2018 following protests.

Ruins of Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Culture National Historical Park The ruins of Pueblo Bonito, seen here, were built sometime between 828 and 1126. It's the most studied site in all of Chaco Culture National Historical Park. (Photo: SkybirdForever/Wikimedia Commons)

Tensions have simmered for years between the government and those who would like the area preserved. BLM and the Bureau of Indians Affairs have worked together to ensure that any land management plan would take into account the area's significance, culturally and scientifically. So far, that plan, in development since 2012, has not yet been released, per the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Udall and U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico introduced legislation in May 2018 that would place a moratorium on future oil and gas development on federal land within a 10-mile radius of Chaco. Udall intends to reintroduce this legislation.

Conservationists say drilling could harm the area, even from 10 miles away.

Visitors "would hear it, would smell it," Paul Reed, a preservation archaeologist with Archaeology Southwest, a Tucson-based nonprofit, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. "That would be the worst kind of degradation."

Reed and others argue that agencies like BLM have not done their due diligence in determining how modern energy extraction processes would impact the area.

BLM pushed back the original lease sale date by a couple of weeks because the government shut down overlapping with the public protest period, but the agency updated its website to announce the lease sale date of March 28. That lease sale will still take place, offering 46 parcels in New Mexico and Oklahoma, but the BLM announced Feb. 8 that it will defer the sale of nine parcels located near the Chaco Culture National Historic Park, totaling 1,500 acres.

"We believe it is best to defer these parcels at this time," said BLM New Mexico State Director Tim Spisak in a statement. "We will continue to gather information to inform the decisions we make about leasing in this area."

Although he praised BLM for deferring those nine parcels, Udall criticized the agency's overall approach to the issue.

"[T]his is the third time under this administration that BLM has chosen to defer parcels in this area — and this stop-start, shoot-from-the-hip approach is not sustainable or in anyone's best interest," Udall said. "The administration should take the next step and agree to not lease any parcels within 10 miles of the National Historical Park until a real joint management plan that includes robust and meaningful Tribal consultation has been implemented, health impacts are assessed, and a thorough ethnographic study of the area's cultural resources is conducted."

Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published on Feb. 8.

BLM defers sale of oil leases near sacred site
Land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico was scheduled to go up for sale in March.