San Juan County Commission Fails to Pass Resolution in Support of Oil and Gas Leasing on Archaeologically Rich BLM Lands

Rock art near Montezuma Canyon that was included in a parcel that leased to oil and gas companies by the BLM in March 2018.

By Zak Podmore

Published: March 21, 2019

A pro-drilling resolution brought forward by San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams failed to pass at this week’s commission meeting after questions were raised from the public about impacts on cultural and water resources.

The resolution was first discussed in a work meeting in early March when Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials attended met with the commission to discuss over 90,000 acres of BLM land in the county that are slated to be leased to oil and gas companies between March 2018 and the end of the month.

Adams’ resolution would have indicated the county’s support for drilling on 30,300 acres that were leased in March 2018, citing the economic benefits to county residents.

All three commissioners questioned Canyon Country District Manager Lance Porter and Monticello Field Office Manager Gary Torres over leasing policies. The BLM officials confirmed that most of the interest in leasing has been in the southeastern part of the county to the east of Bears Ears National Monument. Both Porter and Torres stressed the many layers of federal laws in place to protect archaeological resources on federal lands.

“West of Hovenweep [National Monument], there are several cultural sites,” Porter said. “As companies are wanting to lease in that area, we’re putting some pretty heavy stipulations in that plan” that would require a cultural resource inventory and clearances before drilling begins.

Commissioner Willie Grayeyes initially indicated he could support a pro-drilling resolution so long as it included language about mitigating impacts to cultural resources in accordance with the law.

“The BLM could start a cultural landscape-scale planning process that will result in a win-win situation for both the local government and also the protection of the culture,” Grayeyes said.

The leasing, which includes parcels near Hovenweep and Canyons of the Ancients national monuments as well as in Montezuma Canyon, has not been without controversy. An investigative report by Reveal magazine stated recent sales in San Juan County include the “most archaeologically rich parcels ever offered for industrial use.” In 2015, the Obama administration deferred numerous leases in the area because of concerns over cultural resources.

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Map of oil and gas leasing on BLM lands in southeastern Utah. Click to enlarge. Courtesy Friends of Cedar Mesa.

The Pueblo of Acoma, the Hopi Tribe, and the All Pueblo Council of Governors have all filed formal protests of the sales.

The BLM wrote in a 2017 environmental assessment that archaeologists have surveyed between 2 and 55 percent of the ground in recently leased parcels. Former BLM archaeologist Don Simonis said in a statement, “In many of these lease parcels, less than 10 percent of the lands have been surveyed; so the recorded sites the BLM knows about are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s safe to say this area has the highest density of archaeological sites in the United States.”

Offering leases that with minimal cultural surveys is “backwards,” according to former Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones. “The lease guarantees that the leaseholder will be able to drill there. They’re supposed to mitigate that effect, but they’re allowed to drill even if it will destroy something very important,” Jones told Sierra magazine last month.

Before the resolution came to a vote at the March 19 county commission meeting, Josh Ewing, executive director for Friends of Cedar Mesa, encouraged the commissioners to vote against it.

“Despite requests from [numerous] Tribes and Friends of Cedar Mesa, the BLM has refused to remove even a single sacred site, even a single acre from these lease sales,” Ewing said. “As such, the message this proposed resolution sends — in its current form — is that oil and gas money is more important than Native American culture and heritage.”

Above: Comment by Josh Ewing at the March 19 commission meeting. Credit: Angelo Baca.

Harry Johnson, a resident of McCracken Mesa on the Navajo Nation, raised concerns about parcels that have been leased along the reservation border.

“We need detail on what kind of drilling is there going to be,” Johnson said. “Is there going to be horizontal drilling because it’s very close to our border. Is it going to go towards our reservation?”

“There is really good water underground there,” he added.

Adams explained the lease sale referred to in the resolution took place a year ago. “What we are doing today is just stating an opinion that we support the leasing as long as it was done according to the law and that they considered every possible mitigation, every possible damage that could be done to any of the resources,” Adams said.

Neither Grayeyes nor Maryboy offered to second Adams’ motion to pass the resolution and the motion died. Grayeyes agreed with Adams that the leasing was already a “done deal” and questioned why the county should voice its opinion to support it. “Why paint the same horse a different color?” he said.

Friends of Cedar Mesa has challenged the BLM in court over the leasing, claiming that it did not follow proper procedure when determining which parcels to offer at auction.

One thought on “San Juan County Commission Fails to Pass Resolution in Support of Oil and Gas Leasing on Archaeologically Rich BLM Lands

  1. Drilling in or near archaeologically rich parcels should transpire as an absolutely last resort if the country can’t find enough oil or gas somewhere else. Need should be the criteria not profits.


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