Chaco Culture National Historical Park Could Gain Measure Of Protection From BLM Oil And Gas Leasing Plan

Chaco Culture National Historical Park could gain a measure of protection from oil and gas leasing on surrounding public lands via a draft plan crafted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, though the agency is being prodded to be even more circumspect in shielding the park.

In the draft environmental assessment prepared on the leasing plan, the BLM withdrew 34 of 38 parcels around the historical park from auction. Of the remaining four, it included stipulations that any leasing being designed in a way to protect viewsheds around the park located in New Mexico. However, it was not immediately clear whether that extended to the night skies over the park.

As oil and gas leasing in the West ramps up, in part under "hydrofracking" procedures that allow recovery of deposits previously thought unrecoverable, several units of the National Park System have come into relatively close proximity to energy exploration operations.

At Theodore Roosevelt National Park, drilling rigs are visible from some parts of the park. When the sun goes down the glow of flaring natural gas, like flickering candle flames, can be seen from some parts of the park. Drive along the south boundary of the park and you might encounter signs warning of dangerous levels of hydrogen sulfide around drilling wells. Simply driving to the park is made increasingly dangerous by the heavy traffic tied to servicing and drilling in the oilfields.

Groups also have expressed concern over potential leasing near Mesa Verde National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, and the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, just to name three other units.

The draft BLM plan for the lands around Chaco Culture NHS is "definitely a step in the right direction," said Barbara Pahl, western regional vice president for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "Chaco Canyon is sacred to native people throughout New Mexico and the greater Southwest and deserves the highest level of consideration before industrial activities, like oil and gas drilling, are allowed nearby.

"With this decision, BLM now has the opportunity to look more closely at the landscape surrounding Chaco Canyon and develop a plan that responds to the concerns of the tribes, and preservation advocates like the National Trust, and better balances oil and gas drilling with the protection of the Chaco’s significant cultural values.”

Ellis Richard, founder of Park Rangers for Our Lands, hoped the BLM would adopt additional protections for the historical park if any leases are acted upon.

“Chaco Canyon embodies the rich heritage of America’s past and deserves protection. We’re encouraged that the New Mexico BLM is delaying much of the oil and gas leasing near Chaco Canyon," he said. "For the leases moving forward, I applaud the state director for taking a close look and working to protect our national park and the surrounding cultural heritage sites. The next step is for New Mexico BLM to create a smarter, comprehensive plan, which protects the landscape near Chaco Canyon and the amazing cultural and wildlife resources in the area.”

The BLM's draft leasing plan -- the lease auction is set for January 2014 -- comes right on the heels of designation of Chaco Culture National Historical Park as a "Dark Sky Park" by the International Dark Sky Association. The plan is open for public comment through October 2. You can submit your comments via this email address.