SALT LAKE CITY • The U.S. government is letting oil and gas companies bid for leases Monday on lands considered archaeologically sensitive near a national monument that straddles the Colorado-Utah border and houses sacred tribal sites.
The Bureau of Land Management's September oil and gas lease sale includes about 47 square miles north of Hovenweep National Monument's prehistoric villages overlooking a canyon with links to indigenous tribes throughout the Southwest. The parcels for lease are about five to 20 miles north of the monument.
The sale comes amid an ongoing debate over drilling in Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, where a coalition of tribes is calling for a halt on energy development near land that Native Americans consider sacred.
The Trump administration has pushed to open vast expanses of public lands to oil and gas drilling, speed construction of petroleum pipelines and ease federal environmental regulations, dismissing calls from scientists in and out of government that immediate cuts in oil, gas and coal emissions are required to stave off the worst of climate change.
Environmentalists and tribal organizations blasted the plan, saying drilling on the high desert would damage the prehistoric structures and pollute the air.
"When this oil and gas leasing happens on or near sacred lands, it risks de-stabilizing the bedrock (of the structures)," said Ahjani Yepa, a member of Utah Diné Bikéyah, a Navajo grassroots organization. "Hovenweep is in all of our stories, and to threaten the integrity of these structures jeopardizes everything we've carried forward as resilient people."
Environmentalists and local business owners have also expressed concern about the effects on water resources in rural communities and tourism from outdoor recreation that helps local economies.
Hovenweep was designated as an International Dark Sky Park in 2014 by the International Dark-Sky Association, recognized for its striking night skies and stargazing opportunities. Southeast Utah is known for its sweeping desert landscapes and expansive night skies. The state has 11 internationally recognized "Dark Sky Parks," the most of any state.
Business owners in Bluff said the dark skies drive tourism to Hovenweep, and feared industrial light pollution, as well as the sounds and smells of energy development, could drive visitors away.
Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance oil industry trade group countered that the plans are far from the monument.
"They're making sure companies are operating in a responsible way while meeting the call from Congress to expand oil and gas development," she said.
Every lease has a cultural resource protection requirement that allows the BLM to modify plans if impacts to cultural resources can't be avoided or minimized, said spokeswoman Kimberly Finch.
The agency says in planning documents that companies should take steps to protect the area's environmental and cultural landscape, limit use of artificial light at drilling sites and protect usable aquifers from drilling.
Companies must obtain permits and go through environmental reviews before they begin construction or drilling. Some leases go years before drilling or expire before any activity occurs.
Still, environmentalists and Native Americans vested in the land said such documents fail to address a trend of leasing increasingly more land on or near sensitive tribal landscapes. Parcels near Hovenweep were offered, then deferred, in a March BLM lease sale, and new documents for an upcoming December lease sale show more land will be up for grabs.
Juana Charlie, a member of the Pueblo of Acoma, said it's been difficult to negotiate with the BLM on cultural protections.
"At least we have our little foot in the door, but that's as far as we've gotten," she said. "They argue these lands are abandoned, but they're not. We use them in our prayers; we visit them. You wouldn't like it if I went into your home, your land, and started digging."
The BLM would benefit from more community outreach and long-term planning to lease parcels on sensitive landscapes, said Erika Pollard, an associate director with the National Parks Conservation Association. But the new "energy-dominated era" has made public input on these processes harder, she said.
"When you drive by Hovenweep, it feels like you're traveling back in time. Having that landscape dotted with oil rigs and factories changes everything," Pollard said. "We have to think, 'What legacy do we want to leave in Utah?'"