New Mexico Democrats and tribal leaders want more time for the public to participate in a federal plan for oil and gas leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park because area tribes are diverting attention and resources to fighting the coronavirus.
The call is part of a nationwide push by environmental groups to ask the Interior Department to extend public comment periods for environmental reviews for major public lands actions during the coronavirus pandemic when the public is thinking about its impacts.
The Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday announced four Zoom-based virtual public meetings beginning May 14 on an environmental review of the proposal—a management plan for 1.3 million acres of northwest New Mexico federal lands. A public comment period on the plan opened in February and ends May 28.
The plan offers an option for greater protection around Chaco Canyon, but the BLM prefers an option that balances “market-driven development” with “the needs of the many communities and groups” in the area.
“All of our resources and attention in northwest New Mexico should be directed toward stopping the spread of the virus,” Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said on a call with reporters Friday. “These communities cannot be expected to turn their attention to a public comment process in the middle of a crisis.”
The BLM is holding virtual public meetings on the Chaco plan to “maintain a capable and functioning government during the COVID-19 outbreak” while keeping the public safe from the virus, bureau spokesman Derrick Henry said Friday. Anyone without internet access can call into the meetings, he said.
Acting BLM director William Perry Pendley said in a statement Wednesday that the bureau is “excited” to use Zoom to allow “orders of magnitude” more people to participate than could attend public meetings in person.
Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwest New Mexico, is considered sacred by Native American tribes in the region, including the surrounding Navajo Nation. It’s among the Southwest’s most culturally and historically significant sites and contains what has been described as the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico.
Planning Goes On Amid Pandemic
The Interior Department has continued environmental reviews for projects and plans during the pandemic, including holding virtual public meetings on the Chaco plan, the Willow oil field development project in Alaska, and others.
But the BLM canceled public meetings on the proposed Yellow Pine Solar Project in Nevada and instead posted planned PowerPoint presentations online. No virtual meetings were scheduled.
Short public comment periods and virtual or canceled public meetings could leave the BLM’s environmental reviews vulnerable to court challenges because the pandemic poses extenuating circumstances barring some public participation, said Robert Keiter, an environmental law professor at the University of Utah.
Basin and Range Watch, which opposes the solar project, is considering legal action to challenge the BLM’s decision to cancel public meetings on the plan, said Kevin Emmerich, the group’s founder.
Attention from the Hill
The Chaco plan has attracted the attention of the House Natural Resources Committee, which in 2019 pushed a bill through the House that aims to protect Chaco Canyon.
Bipartisan legislation (H.R. 2181) that would ban oil and gas drilling around Chaco passed the House in September. A co-sponsor of the House bill was conservative Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). An identical bill (S. 1079) is stalled in the Senate with no GOP support.
The BLM will “host virtual public forums less than two weeks before finalizing plan updates. Native American reservations have limited broadband internet access and inconsistent capacity to connect to agencies virtually,” Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and House Natural Resources Committee Chair Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in a statement Thursday.
Michael Chavarria, governor of New Mexico’s Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said Friday that tribes are “shocked and dismayed” that the BLM is rushing to finalize the Chaco plan despite tribes’ calls to pause the process.