ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A U.S. district judge has dismissed claims by environmentalists who argued that the approval of drilling permits violated historic preservation laws because of potential threats to culturally significant sites in northwestern New Mexico.
Despite an earlier ruling that signaled the claims had merit, Judge James Browning issued an opinion and an amended order late Monday determining federal land managers did not violate the law since they considered the effects of the wells on historical sites.
The decision comes in a long-running dispute over management of vast expanses of land surrounding Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Efforts in recent years to petition the federal government to set aside large parts of the Chaco region as an area of critical environmental concern have been unsuccessful.
More recently, tribal leaders and other critics have asked for a moratorium on drilling, saying increased development has the potential to destroy parts of the landscape that could provide a better understanding of the ancient civilization that once inhabited the area.
The oil and gas industry welcomed Browning’s ruling, saying the 2015 lawsuit was more about derailing drilling rather than protecting the environment or the state’s cultural treasures.
Ryan Flynn, executive director of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said in a statement “it was yet another moment for activists to hijack economic growth for our state,” pointing to the tax revenues and royalties that feed state coffers.
Environmentalists on Wednesday refused to back down from their efforts to limit drilling in the region.
Kyle Tisdel, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, said the court case is one part of a broader campaign that still includes an overhaul of the resource management plan that guides development decisions for the region.
The Bureau of Land Management has been working on updating that plan, and U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke in March halted a quarterly oil and gas lease sale over concerns about cultural impacts after hundreds of people protested.
Zinke said he wanted more time for his agency to complete an ongoing analysis of nearly 5,500 cultural sites in the area.
“Not only are we talking about historic properties – some of the highest historic properties anywhere in the country – but we’re talking about tribal people who still live in that landscape and have a cultural connection and relationship to that landscape,” Tisdel said.
A world heritage site, Chaco park and its outlying archaeological remnants include massive stone structures, kivas and other features that archaeologists believe offered something of a religious or ritualistic experience. Many of the structures are aligned with celestial events, such as the summer solstice.
The Bureau of Land Management in recent years has deferred the leasing of parcels within a 10-mile buffer around Chaco park.