In response to public outcry, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has deferred the sale of oil and gas leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. That may, or may not, be a positive sign for cultural and natural resources in the West.
Zinke told the Albuquerque Journal that he had heard from tribal officials and New Mexico’s senators, and “there have been some questions raised” about the impact of energy development on cultural and sacred sites. We applaud him for paying attention to public input and encourage him to do so more systematically, and earlier in the process, as he makes future decisions.
Chaco, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is the nexus of the ancestral Pueblo culture that thrived for centuries in the harsh desert landscape of the Four Corners region, and not all of it lies within the park. A great deal of information about Chaco’s archaeological and cultural significance and the fragility of its archaeological resources was available to the Department of Interior when it first considered the parcels for lease, and there’s much more to be documented and studied, including the Chaco great houses, related ancient roads and potential effects of development.
New discoveries will be the topic of tonight’s lecture (Herald, March 4) at 7 p.m. at Noble Hall 130 at Fort Lewis. The program is an opportunity to develop a greater appreciation for the fascinating story of Chaco, also at solsticeproject.org.
The park is also surrounded by rural residents whose ambivalence toward energy development is understandable. Jobs and royalties can make a life-changing difference, while pollution, disruption and desecration are felt most strongly there. It’s unfortunate that those residents get caught in a political tug of war.
The Chaco deferral follows a similar pattern seen in Interior decisions, as well as others from the Trump administration: Informally announce a decision, monitor public comment and then issue modifications. Earlier this year, Zinke exempted Florida from an upcoming five-year offshore oil-and-gas development plan. This week, he postponed a lease sale in his home state of Montana.
That “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks” tactic has been somewhat successful in managing public opinion. While industry voices decry environmentalist influence and avoid talking about cultural values, let’s not forget that oil, gas and coal resources played a big role in the decision to withdraw 2 million acres from Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. And, drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge could go up for sale next year. Those are big net wins for the industry and harsh blows to the environmental community, especially at a time when energy prices are low. That’s politics, not energy policy.
We are skeptical, then, that the Secretary has begun to value tribal voices over energy companies, or that any force other than politics is driving these deferrals and exemptions.
In a statement on the Montana lease withdrawal, he said, “Multiple use is about balance. I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it is not.”
It’s not hard to see whose interests push most heavily on the balance scale, especially when the possibility of new access is dangled before them. Nonetheless, thanks to Zinke for listening, and kudos to those who have been able to get their messages across this time.