Chaco reprieve

Photo of Pueblo Bonito by Chris Morris.jpg

By Norma McCallan, Public Lands chair

Gas and oil prospects in the San Juan Basin’s Mancos Shale have put the area outside Chaco Culture National Historical Park in danger of drilling. There’s promising short-term news from the Bureau of Land Management, but a permanent solution needs your support.

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is one of the most spectacular areas in New Mexico, if not in the United States.

With good reason it was named a World Heritage Site in 1987, and it attracts visitors from around the planet. Coming upon the cluster of the largest ruins after a long drive on a poorly maintained dirt road in this remote section of the San Juan Basin is a breathtaking sight, and wandering through the many still-standing buildings brings a sense of awe at the engineering and architectural abilities of these ancestral Pueblo peoples who built these massive structures between 850 and 1250 A.D.

On Aug. 19, Chaco was named an International Dark Sky Park in recognition that it is one of the best places to view the night sky. But areas surrounding these fragile ruins, long protected by the remoteness of the area, are now threatened by the juggernaut of new oil and gas explorations seeking to exploit the newly discovered Mancos Shale formations in this section of the San Juan Basin. The north side of the park is primarily BLM land, interspersed with Navajo holdings.

BLM’s Farmington Field Office still operates under a 2003 Resource Management Plan (RMP). George W. Bush was president, and the overriding sentiment was to drill us into energy independence so that we were no longer beholden to the Middle East.

It was also written before the creation of new drilling technologies that allow access to far deeper oil and gas deposits,
and the BLM staff at that time felt there was little likelihood of serious drilling in this area, though they did unfortunately designate a large number of parcels as “suitable for drilling”in their RMP.

Oil and gas companies regularly nominate parcels they want to drill (based on the latest findings of their geophysical
staff) for the quarterly lease sales held by the state BLM office. In the current January 2014 statewide oil and gas lease sale being offered by the BLM, 38 nominated parcels (totaling 19,000 acres) in the Chaco area are listed.

Fortunately, Farmington BLM staff have chosen as their Preferred Alternative that 34 of the 38 parcels require deferment because “an inventory for lands with wilderness characteristics has not been completed.”

This is a relatively new tool in their toolbox, brought out in their 2010 internal Leasing Reform requirements. An inventory contract has been signed, and contractors are starting to work on this inventory across the entire district. It
remains to be seen how much of the greater Chaco area will fit the “lands with wilderness characteristics” designation
(which requires 5,000 acres that are roadless and offer a sense of solitude), but those parcels that do can be designated as “No Surface Occupancy” and withdrawn from drilling.

In the broader perspective, it is likely the BLM will discover some special places they were little aware of, including,
perhaps, some badlands, which we may want to protect. The four parcels left in the sale are all at least 10 miles from the Chaco Park boundary. One is a coal mine, and the other three are next to already existing drilling operations.

The process of horizontal hydraulic fracturing is anathema to this sensitive Chacoan landscape. Its extreme water
use (some 5-8 million gallons of water per frack per well) has already dried up nearby springs in this arid region.
Areas once known for their wild vistas, like western Colorado,which now contains major drilling activities, are seeing
smog levels higher than Los Angeles. Nearby fracking operations could cover Chaco Park in a gray haze while their
toxic emissions, like benzene and xylene, could have serious health impacts for visitors.

Flares from fracking and lights for drilling operations create light pollution, which interferes with night skies, while the 24/7 running of compressors causes continuous noise pollution.

Though not totally understood yet, there are indications that fracking can cause seismic activity — by its nature
it induces micro-earthquakes when the pressurized liquid is injected into wells to break up the buried shale rock. The
implications for Chaco’s fragile ruins are frightening.

As a means to more permanent protection, San Juan Citizens Alliance, Wild Earth Guardians, Society for American Archaeology and the New Mexico Archeological Council have petitioned Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and the BLM to designate the Greater Chaco Landscape as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) and withdraw all federal lands within the proposed boundaries currently open to oil and gas leasing.

Their boundaries are based on potential visual impact on the park from oil and gas development, locations of active oil
and gas wells and of oil and gas leases. This audacious proposal of 1.1 million acres includes most of the Chaco World
Heritage Site and several of the satellite villages (Chacoan Great House Communities) and other resources affiliated with Chaco Canyon that have been formally designated by either Congress or BLM, as well as the Great North Road that once linked Chaco with the settlement 55 miles to the north now known as Aztec Ruin.

The definition of an ACEC fits the Chaco landscape well— pertaining to areas where specific management attention is needed to protect and prevent irreparable damage to important historical, cultural and scenic values, including sensitive archaeological resources and religious or cultural sites important to Native Americans.

The Rio Grande Chapter sent an action alert to supporters before the Oct. 2 BLM deadline for comment on the proposed lease sale. We will notify of you of the results and progress on the petition to designate the Greater Chaco Landscape as an Area of Critical Environmental Concern as soon as they happen. There will also be an opportunity to comment later this winter on the BLM's proposals for amending its Resource Management plan.