BLM Planning Vast Overhaul of Greater Chaco Land Management Plan During Pandemic

Online comment sessions render many voiceless against plan prioritizing fossil fuel production on federal and Native lands in New Mexico, opponents say.

Find more of our Covid-19 coverage.

Update: On May 21, the Bureau of Land Management extended the comment period for its Greater Chaco resource management plan by four months. The extension comes after public hearings in which the Navajo Nation, environmental activists, and other parties requested more time to respond.Public now has until September 25 to offer comment.

A lot can change in a few months. When 2020 dawned, Native Americans and conservationists across New Mexico thought they had put the brakes on unshackled oil and gas drilling in the region called Greater Chaco ­— an arid land dominated by its namesake national park, sacred Indigenous ruins, and fragile ecosystem. In a landmark decision last May, the US Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit ruled that the US Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) was issuing drilling permits in Greater Chaco using obsolete guidelines that failed to consider the cumulative impacts of fracking. Over 25 fracking permits were overturned and the court ordered BLM back to the drawing board, setting a precedent for all future assessments. Then a pandemic hit.

chaco canyon
More than 22,000 active oil and gas wells dot the Great Chaco landscape, which lies within the Four Corners region. Photo by Jim Rhodes.

Now, with tribes completely distracted by the coronavirus crisis (per capita, the Navajo Nation is one of the worst hit populations in the United States), federal officials are pushing through a Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA), a process that began in 2014. The RMPA overhauls the BLM’s land management plan for the region, updating guidelines for oil and gas leasing in a way that many say puts American energy dominance before environmental protection. In a hotly contested move, BLM is holding final public comment sessions online today through Monday, in cyberspace, effectively excluding local Navajo, and Pueblo peoples, since Internet access is scarce across the reservation and Pueblo communities. (The written comment period ends May 28.)

In early April, New Mexico’s entire congressional delegation requested that the BLM postpone these public comment sessions until the health crisis subsides, but Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt has remained silent. It is a bitter pill for New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich and others to swallow — Heinrich was one of only three Democratic Senators to vote for Bernhardt’s confirmation.

“We are absolutely outraged that the BLM has ignored calls from tribal governments, our entire congressional delegation, and multiple environmental groups to extend this comment period in light of the hardship that [the pandemic] is creating,” said local Sierra Club representative Miya King-Flaherty.

“And it’s even more egregious,” she added, “that the people who are going to be most impacted by this plan in Greater Chaco within the Navajo Nation aren’t going to be able to participate because so many lack adequate broadband and Internet access. Right now their focus is on keeping their families safe, not on this plan. To be holding these meetings and basically silence their voices is disgraceful.”

Compounding worries, New Mexico’s Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard has proposed an emergency measure statewide that would allow oil operators to “shut in” wells using emergency shutdown valves that can suspend production until prices rebound. Over 22,000 active oil and gas wells dot the Greater Chaco landscape. Environmentalists worry the wells could leak toxic methane or oil if not properly monitored or capped. At the same time that wells move offline and oil prices cling to historic lows, BLM continues issuing drilling permits and is pushing forward with the RMPA review in Greater Chaco.

California condor in flight
Navajo Nation members and allies rally outside of the Bureau of Land Management’s state offices in Santa Fe in January 2017 to protest the agency’s lease of public lands for fracking in the Greater Chaco area. Photo courtesy of WildEarth Guardians.

While Navajo voices have fallen on deaf ears at the federal level, nearby Jicarilla Apaches are reeling from a similar snub at the state level. Two weeks ago, just as the tribe was on the verge of winning one of the largest and lowest cost solar energy projects in US history, New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission (PRC) blocked the project. It was slated to be built, in part, on tribal lands.

Even though New Mexico’s own electrical utility director and other examiners strongly recommended approval of the project, the PRC voted 3-2 to let the contract deadline expire at the end of April. Opposition stemmed from urban residents in Farmington, New Mexico, upset that the corresponding closure of the coal-powered San Juan Generating Station in 2022 will diminish their tax base. They want solar tax dollars for themselves. New Mexico now stands to lose a lucrative renewable energy project, and the Jicarilla Apache community has lost a badly needed source of revenue.

For half a century, fossil fuels have ruled the Southwest. With power plants and coal mines closing across the Four Corners region, it is Native Americans who are hardest hit, having reluctantly sacrificed their land and water to a coal boom decades ago. Some tribes still covet fossil fuels while others rue the day they signed on to a system that has poisoned their water, livestock, and air. Despite that split, there is broad agreement that decisions about their own mineral rights have been foisted upon them without representation or consultation.

“This is at the very heart of ripping off the Indians and finding every single which way to approve the leases,” says Mario Atencio, a board member of Dine CARE, a well-known Navajo environmental group. “There’s no discussion with the landowners to talk about what they want. It’s the highest injustice to keep this up in an area where there’s almost no broadband connectivity. [People here] don’t even understand a Zoom meeting.”

Meanwhile, with coronavirus spreading across the Navajo Nation at alarming rates, Greater Chaco’s Native Americans are running out of options, and a long history of exploitation is repeating itself with a modern twist. Now instead of smallpox it is coronavirus, and instead of broken treaties it is broken cyber connections.

To register for and attend RMPA meetings, go to the BLM website:

To attend by phone, call 505-635-9701.

The meeting schedule is:

2 p.m. to 4 p.m. MDT Thursday May 14

9 a.m. to 11 a.m. MDT Friday, May 15

2 p.m. to 4 p.m. MDT Friday, May 15

9 a.m. to 11 a.m. MDT Saturday, May 16

9 a.m. to 11 a.m. MDT Monday, May 18

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