The Interior Department will give the public four more months to comment on a plan to expand oil and gas development near New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
The extension announced Thursday heeds calls from the Navajo Nation, activists, and Congressional Democrats to allow Navajos living near Chaco Canyon, hard-hit by the coronavirus crisis, to have more time to react to the proposal.
The Bureau of Land Management, part of Interior, expanded the comment period for 120 days, to Sept. 25. BLM officials offered no explanation for the extension, and bureau spokesman Derrick Henry didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Alison Kelly, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, was unsure whether the extension would quell concerns from environmental groups about the public’s ability to be heard on Chaco Canyon.
“It’s going to depend—if that’s enough time,” she said. “Do we know if the pandemic will be over by then?”
Several groups applauded the longer time to comment.
“This extension is a victory for the communities fighting to protect Chaco and the people whose health and well-being are threatened by more fracking,” Margaret Wadsworth, an organizer for environmental group Food and Water Action, said in a statement Thursday.
“The Navajo Nation has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and could not meaningfully participate in hearings where their voices would be essential,” she said.
Chaco Canyon, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in northwest New Mexico, is considered sacred by Native American tribes in the region, including the nearby Navajo Nation. It’s among the Southwest’s most culturally and historically significant sites and contains what’s been described as the most sweeping collection of ancient ruins north of Mexico.
Bipartisan legislation (H.R. 2181) that would ban oil and gas drilling around Chaco passed the House in September. A cosponsor of the House bill was conservative Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.). An identical bill (S. 1079) is stalled in the Senate with no GOP support.
The BLM is considering amending a management plan for 1.3 million acres of its territory surrounding Chaco Canyon that could open the region to more oil and gas development.
The plan offers an option for greater protection around Chaco Canyon, but the BLM prefers one that balances “market-driven development” with “the needs of the many communities and groups” in the area.
Environmental and Native American groups nationwide have been asking Interior to extend public comment periods for environmental reviews for major actions on public lands during the pandemic.
Kelly criticized the BLM during a May 18 virtual public meeting on the plan, accusing it of preventing people disproportionately affected by the coronavirus from fully participating in the decision-making process.
But Tom Spisak, the BLM’s New Mexico state director, said at the meeting that it’s “important to make sure we have a capable and functioning government during the Covid-19 pandemic.”