The BLM leases lands near Chaco Canyon for $3 million

The controversial parcels are the first auctioned online in New Mexico.


On January 25, the Bureau of Land Management leased nearly 850 acres of land for drilling in northwest New Mexico, netting close to $3 million. The agency offers leases on millions of acres of public land per year, but this latest sale was unusual. Not only was it the first time that the BLM has conducted a lease sale online rather than live in the New Mexico region, the sale had also been postponed three times over the last five years, because its lands are just 20 miles from Chaco Culture National Historical Park (also a UNESCO World Heritage site and an International Dark Sky Park).

Pueblo Bonito ruins in Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Flickr user John Fowler

While Chaco Canyon and its ruins, such as Pueblo Bonito, are protected from development, as is a 10-mile buffer around the park, surrounding areas are not. Chaco is the core of a much larger Ancestral Puebloan civilization that extended for hundreds of miles in the central San Juan Basin from about 900 to 1150 A.D. The land today is sacred to Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and other Pueblo Indians, and bears remnants of a system of 30-foot-wide roads radiating outward from Chaco Canyon, as well as extensive ruins, artifacts and even lunar calendars etched into boulders. None of those have yet been studied thoroughly by archaeologists.

Nonetheless, about 90 percent of the Greater Chaco area has already been leased for oil and gas development, and Native Americans and environmental groups have fought to exclude the remaining areas. They succeeded in delaying this lease sale multiple times over concerns that hydraulic fracturing and drilling would harm the environment and public health. A petition signed by 650 residents and industry representatives, however, asked the BLM to allow the sale to proceed for the jobs and revenue it would generate.

Drilling near Lybrook, New Mexico, about 45 miles from Chaco Canyon.
Flickr user John Fowler

While the local Bureau of Land Management office gathered public input after the initial outcry, Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation, recently told the Durango Herald, “It’s an amazing contradiction to me. (The BLM) say they are getting input into the process from the local people, but at the same time, they seem to be proceeding with the sale, regardless of what comments they generate.”

The parcels won't be released to the winning bidders until several protests filed against the leases have been resolved.

Jodi Peterson is High Country News’ senior editor.

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