SHIPROCK – Over the years, Anthony Lee, a Navajo medicine man, has watched the sacred land around Chaco Canyon where he gathers herbs and performs ceremonies slowly turn into an industrial landscape.
“This is a place still sacred to those of us carrying on our tradition, those of us still connected to our culture,” Lee said. “This is where we go to make offerings, prayers. And now I see a lot of destruction.”
On Thursday, Lee and other members of the Navajo Nation made their case to stop drilling in the greater Chaco area at the Bureau of Land Management’s 10th and final public meeting regarding energy development in the region.
In October, the Department of the Interior announced that the BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs would engage in a joint partnership to further evaluate the impacts of oil and gas in the culturally sensitive landscape.
Part of that initiative required the two agencies to hold public meetings throughout small communities on the Navajo Nation, where an estimated 24 tribes hold deep cultural and spiritual ties to the land.
In November, the first attempt to hold a public meeting in Shiprock went awry when tribal members began an open dialogue. BLM staff said the forum violated its processes, and left the Shiprock Chapter House.
But on Thursday, the nearly 100 tribal members in attendance were given several hours to speak their minds, drawing a near unanimous opposition to any future drilling in the region.
“We are the original landlords, and we will retain that title for as long as we are here,” said Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie. “And it doesn’t take any kind of brilliance to know we are hurting the land, we are hurting the water and, by extension, we are hurting the people (by drilling).”
The BLM office in Farmington is updating its 2003 Resource Management Plan, as well as an associated Environmental Impact Statement, which places stipulations for future oil and gas leases.
However, with about 90 percent of the land leased in the greater Chaco region – the area that extends beyond Chaco Culture National Historic Park – the remaining 10 percent or so has become a battleground between conservation and development interests.
Mark Ames, BLM project manager, said despite the overwhelming sentiment from the local Navajo tribe to cease all future oil and gas operations in the area, the BLM has a congressional obligation to recover federal resources.
“At this point, we don’t have a choice,” Ames said.
He said public comments will at least aid regulators in addressing some of the more feasible concerns – such as traffic, noise or light disturbances – when the remaining 10 percent of unleased acres are eventually sold off.
“You wonder how much our voice really means,” said Murphy Zohnnie. “I hope, ultimately, when decisions are made, those voices matter, but I’m afraid.”
Ames said there is a possibility the 10-mile buffer around the archaeologically rich Chaco Culture National Historic Park, which is under an oil and gas development moratorium, could be permanently protected, but it’s premature to say.
Ames said the BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs will draft a range of management options. The local offices will then pass on a recommendation to the state and federal levels, which have the ultimate say.
Though it’s important to note, Ames said, that the BIA manages about 80 percent of the land within the 10-mile buffer zone around the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and International Dark Sky Park.
“I love that country, and then I saw what was happening,” said Gloria Emerson, 78. “I feel helpless.”
Lee said he makes regular trips to the arid, windswept country where his ancestors lived.
“The answer to your Environmental Impact Statement is so simple,” he said. “We are destroying something sacred.”
The public comment period for the BLM ends Feb. 20.