The sale comes as Democratic members of Congress, tribal leaders and environmentalists have criticized the federal Bureau of Land Management for pushing ahead with drilling permit reviews and preparations for energy leases during the recent government shutdown.
With limited staff on duty over the last month, many complained that they were locked out of the process because the agency didn’t release any information about the sale.
They also questioned whether the agency would be able to adequately review the land that’s up for bid and whether it would consider protests to the move.
“It’s a mistake that while critical public services were shuttered for 35 days during the government shutdown, BLM still moved forward with this opaque process,” U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, New Mexico Democrat said.
“We cannot help but protest what appears to be an intentional bias in the favoring of oil and gas development over other interests,” former Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley said during a congressional forum.
The agency quietly confirmed on its website that it would accept comments starting Feb. 11 and that the sale was scheduled for March 28.
Depending on the outcome of the protest period, it’s possible for the agency to withdraw the land in question, including nine parcels near Chaco, a world heritage site with massive stone structures, kivas and other features that archaeologists believe offered a religious or ritualistic experience.
In recent years, land managers have declined oil and gas exploration on land within 10 miles of the park, creating somewhat of an informal buffer. In early 2018, then-Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke halted a lease sale over cultural concerns after hundreds of people protested.
The battle over energy development around Chaco has been simmering for years. In 2015, government officials visited the region in hopes of brokering a way forward for the tribes and energy companies.
Aside from the sites that everyone knows about in Chaco, there are a number of communities that exist within the 10-mile zone that we think need a greater level of protection.
Our concerns have just begun.