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Hope for Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco night sky

Last week, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) gave New Mexico reason for hope when it indicated that it would likely not be offering a majority of planned oil and gas drilling leases near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Of the 38 initial leases that were on the table, only four will likely be offered.

Located in a remote canyon in northwestern New Mexico, between Albuquerque and Farmington, lies Chaco. Covering 34,000 acres it is one of the densest concentrations of pueblos in the American Southwest and one of the most important pre-Columbian cultural and historical areas north of Mexico. Between 850 and 1250 A.D. the site was a major center of commercial and cultural activity for the Ancient Puebloan people. It remains sacred to the Hopi and Pueblo peoples to this day. The area, while not as well-known as Mesa Verde three days to the north, still brings tens of thousands of tourists every year to learn about the area and experience its recreational opportunities. It is also well-known for its clear night skies free from light pollution. Under the Chaco Night Sky Program instituted to share the park's nocturnal beauty, 14,000 visitors make use of the Chaco Observatory every year.

Unfortunately, the park is abutted by significant tracts of federal land managed by the BLM and lies on top of the Mancos Shale formation in the San Juan Basin. Due to pressure from the oil and gas industry, the BLM recently planned to offer 38 drilling leases totaling around 19,000 acres. Thanks to intense pressure and outcry from environmental groups, the Hopi Tribe and others, the BLM previously deferred these leases. And the release of an environmental assessment last week by the BLM indicates that most of those deferred leases will not be offered as part of the next lease sale in early January. The few remaining that would be offered would be far from the park.

While this announcement is not binding and does not prevent the leases being offered in the future, it is a step in the right direction for preserving this special place. The message to the BLM is loud and clear-- some places are just too special to drill.

 -- By Matt Kirby

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