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Protecting the Greater Chaco Landscape through BLM Planning

By Joelle Marier, New Mexico Wilderness Alliance
Published in News from Trek Country, Cottonwood Gulch Foundation Newsletter
Spring 2016

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Travel in any direction from Farmington, New Mexico and you will find a legacy of culture past and present. To traverse these landscapes is to walk the paths of ancestral Pueblo peoples, to move across lands once populated by dinosaurs, to be immersed in a landscape of strange formations, or to spook an unsuspecting mule deer.

If you’ve been to northwestern New Mexico, you know what a special place this is. Here, layers of sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal, and silt have eroded into an unusual landscape of strange rock formations and a diverse assemblage of well-preserved fossils to reveal a slice of Earth’s geological and biological history. Despite a sometimes stark façade, several species of flora and fauna call this corner of New Mexico home – turkey, mule deer, black bear, elk, and many birds of prey – to name a few. As the hub for the Greater Chaco Landscape, this region not only contains significant cultural resources, but also retains cultural significance for present day indigenous peoples. Humans have had a continuous presence here for over 10,000 years.

For humans of today, northwestern New Mexico can also be a place of recreation and reflection. Wild, undeveloped spaces help maintain these unique values and contribute to the quality of quiet recreational activities such as hiking, sightseeing, backpacking, climbing, hunting, fishing, camping, birdwatching, and photography.

Another thing you may know if you’ve traveled here is that expanding oil and gas development threatens to further impact this already impacted place. Between 84% and 94% of local lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are leased for oil and gas. In comparison, only 3.6% are managed as Wilderness or Wilderness Study Areas. With BLM lands comprising approximately 20% of the land base in this region, high levels of development result in landscape-scale impacts. Current oil and gas development planning includes BLM lands adjacent to Chaco Culture National Historical Park and within the range of known Chacoan archeological sites. If allowed, development could impact the cultural resources, scenic vistas, and dark night skies that are integral components of the park.

Fortunately, an opportunity to protect some of these special wild lands is on the horizon. Right now, the Farmington BLM Field Office is in the process of amending their 2003 Resource Management Plan (RMP) to address potential expansion of oil and gas development in the Mancos/Gallup Formation, which lies beneath 4.2 million acres of federal, state, private, and tribal lands in northeastern New Mexico.

Identification of Lands with Wilderness Characteristics (LWCs) is an integral part of this planning process. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance has identified over 30,000 acres of LWCs spanning areas of cultural, geological, paleontological, and ecological importance. While these lands may meet the BLM’s required criteria, this does not guarantee their wilderness qualities will be preserved. In the Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA), the BLM can formally recognize these areas as having wilderness characteristics and can decide to manage them for preservation of these characteristics for the life of the plan. Without this formal recognition, these wilderness-quality lands become fair game for oil and gas leasing or other uses that could alter their integrity and future wilderness potential.

Legislation has recently been introduced in Congress to expand wilderness designation to the Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness Study Area and to wild lands adjacent to the Bisti-de-na-zin Wilderness. This is certainly an important step forward for land protection, though congressional action can take years with no guarantee of ultimate success. The interim protection granted by administrative decisions to preserve wilderness characteristics adds a temporary safeguard in an area under great pressure from industrial interests.

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Release of the draft RMPA (anticipated sometime this fall, 2016) will trigger a 90-day public comment period within which it will be important to add a public voice in support of keeping northwestern New Mexico’s wild lands wild. During the comment period, we want to tell the BLM; 1) to let existing oil and gas leases on parcels within the viewshed of Chaco Culture National Historical Park expire without the possibility for renewal; 2) to make unleased lands in the vicinity of Chaco unleasable; and 3) to recognize Lands with Wilderness Characteristics and decide to manage these lands to preserve their wilderness character.Wilderness. This is certainly an important step forward for land protection, though congressional action can take years with no guarantee of ultimate success. The interim protection granted by administrative decisions to preserve wilderness characteristics adds a temporary safeguard in an area under great pressure from industrial interests.

You have an opportunity to help protect the still wild places in this special corner of New Mexico. If you care about northwestern New Mexico and the Four Corners, your voice is needed! Please encourage your friends, family, and larger community to get involved and stay involved. After all, these are OUR public lands! For more information on the planning process, visit the Farmington Field Office online planning page or the Farmington section of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance website

ADD YOUR NAME HERE to stay updated on comment periods, public meetings, comment writing workshops and other events related to the Farmington RMPA.