An oil and gas lease sale near Chaco Canyon was postponed this week for the third time, leaving conservationists and tribal communities on edge over the uncertain future of one of the country's few World Heritage sites.
In a media release, the Bureau of Land Management announced three parcels totaling 2,122-acres in the San Juan basin south of Farmington - sacred land for more than 25 tribes - would not be put up for auction in October as planned.
"The NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) and tribal consultation for those parcels has not concluded," the BLM said in the Monday release. "As a result, those three parcels are not yet available for leasing. The BLM intends to complete the NEPA and tribal consultation process, and will then determine whether those parcels are available to be offered at a subsequent sale."
That opportunity could be as early as January, said Lisa Morrison, the BLM's deputy chief of communications in Santa Fe.
"Our next sale is in January," Morrison said. "And if we're satisfied with that (the NEPA and tribal talks), we can put it on that sale."
Since 2014, opponents of oil and gas development in the archaeologically rich area have sparred with federal officials over the contentious lease sale, arguing Chaco Canyon is significant culturally and historically.
Andrew Gulliford, a professor at Fort Lewis College, said Chaco Canyon is among the richest archeological centers in North America, and it should have the protection of the federal government.
"The ruins there, the road system, the opportunity for scientific understanding is ongoing - oil and gas development too close to Chaco diminishes all that," Gulliford said.
"The BLM has an area of critical environmental concern designation, and they need to do that around Chaco."
Morrison said the BLM will consult more than 25 tribes that have historical and cultural roots to Chaco, a 53-square-mile site that was home 1,000 years ago to a flourishing ancestral Pueblo civilization, which left behind some of the highest concentrations of ruins in the Southwest.
"While the BLM has kicked the can down the road to analyze the impacts, they are not off the table completely," said Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at WildEarth Guardians.
"And still, the BLM has yet to analyze the cumulative impacts to the climate, water and air that oil and gas development would have, as well as the extreme sensitivity of this area and the people."
Morrison said all concerns regarding environmental impacts would be addressed in the NEPA study, and BLM is meeting with tribes to find the best way to manage development and cultural sensitivity.
Sobel argued that with 90 percent of the greater Chaco region leased for energy extraction, leaving 10 percent untouched should be a small order.
"This particular community has not yet been affected by oil and gas," Sobel said of the three Navajo chapters near the area in question. "So why would you denigrate a 1,000-plus-year-old ceremonial site?"