SALT LAKE CITY – The U.S. government said it would allow oil and gas companies to make lease bids starting last Monday on lands considered archaeologically sensitive near a national monument stretching across the Utah-Colorado border that houses sacred tribal sites.
Included in the Bureau of Land Management’s September oil and gas lease sale is about 47 square miles of land north of Hovenweep National Monument, a group of prehistoric villages overlooking a canyon with connections to several indigenous tribes throughout the U.S. Southwest. The parcels for lease are about five to 20 miles north of the monument.
The sale comes amid an ongoing debate over drilling in states like Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, where a coalition of tribes are calling for a halt on energy development near land that Native Americans consider sacred.
The Trump administration has pushed to open vast expanses of public lands to oil and gas drilling, speed up the construction of petroleum pipelines and ease federal environmental regulations, dismissing calls from scientists in and out of government that immediate cuts in oil, gas and coal emissions are required to stave off the worst of climate change.
The plan was met with criticism from environmentalists and tribal organizations, who argued drilling on the high desert would damage the prehistoric structures and pollute the air.
“When this oil and gas leasing happens on or near sacred lands, it risks de-stabilizing the bedrock (of the structures),” said Ahjani Yepa, a member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo grass-roots organization. “Hovenweep is in all of our stories, and to threaten the integrity of these structures jeopardizes everything we’ve carried forward as resilient people.”
Environmentalists and local business owners have also expressed concern over the impacts on water resources in rural communities and tourism from outdoor recreation that helps local economies.
Hovenweep was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2014 by the International Dark-Sky Association, recognized for its striking night skies and star-gazing opportunities. Southeast Utah is known for its sweeping desert landscapes and expansive night skies. The state has 11 internationally recognized “Dark Sky Parks,” the most of any state.
Business owners in Bluff said the dark skies drive tourism to Hovenweep, and feared industrial light pollution, as well as the sounds and smells of energy development, could drive visitors away.
Kathleen Sgamma of the oil industry trade group Western Energy Alliance countered that the plans are far from the boundaries of the monument.
“They’re making sure companies are operating in a responsible way while meeting the call from Congress to expand oil and gas development,” she said.
Kimberly Finch, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman, said every lease includes a cultural resource protection requirement that allows the agency to modify plans if impacts to cultural resources can’t be avoided or minimized.
As of Monday afternoon, Finch said there were no results to share and the sale would continue until at least Tuesday.
The agency says in planning documents that companies should take steps to protect the environmental and cultural landscape of the area, including limiting the use of artificial light at drilling sites and protecting useable groundwater aquifers from drilling.
Companies must obtain permits and go through environmental reviews before they begin construction or drilling. Some leases go years before drilling or expire before any activity occurs.
Still, environmentalists and Native Americans invested in the land said such documents fail to address a larger trend of leasing increasingly more land on or near sensitive tribal landscapes. Parcels near Hovenweep were offered, then deferred, in a March BLM lease sale, and new documents for an upcoming December lease sale show more land will be up for grabs.
Juana Charlie, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma, said it’s been difficult to negotiate with the BLM on cultural protections.
“At least we have our little foot in the door, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten,” she said. “They argue these lands are abandoned, but they’re not, we use them in our prayers, we visit them. You wouldn’t like it if I went into your home, your land, and started digging.”
The Bureau of Land Management would benefit from more community outreach and long-term planning to lease parcels on sensitive landscapes, said Erika Pollard, an associate director with the National Parks Conservation Association. But the new “energy-dominated era” she said we’re in has made public input on these processes harder.
“When you drive by Hovenweep, it feels like you’re travelling back in time. Having that landscape dotted with oil rigs and factories changes everything,” she said. “We have to think, ‘What legacy do we want to leave in Utah?’”