By Frances Madeson

SANTA FE — Counselor Chapter President Harry Domingo and Ojo Encino Chapter President George Werito, Jr. set out from Eastern Navajo before dawn Tuesday for a 9 a.m. meeting with BLM State Director Amy Leuders in Santa Fe.

The face-to-face meeting with the official who possesses the authority to permanently cancel the sale of 843 acres for industrialized fracking development was the culmination of a three-year process to stop the sale of parcels near Chaco Canyon, already deferred by the BLM three times – in October 2014, January 2015, and October 2016.

Presidents Domingo and Werito were joined by newly elected New Mexico State Rep. Derrick J. Lente of Sandia Pueblo, whose district encompasses lands under the purview of the BLM’s 2003 Resource Management Plan, the controlling document of the oil and gas lease sales, which is now in the process of being amended.

They questioned the legitimacy of continuing oil and gas development in public lands under the purview of the BLM’s Farmington Field Office until the amended MRP is in place and the impacts of fracking have been assessed, which is anticipated to be some time in 2018.

Community members, one whose home is located on a parcel included in the upcoming sale, also had a chance to speak in the intense meeting that left Domingo and Werito cautiously optimistic that the sale would indeed be canceled. “They make these decisions without thinking about us,” Kendra Pinto told the Navajo Times. “This time we looked each other in the eyes. I literally asked her to save my home.”

The Chapter leaders were armed with an arsenal of wide-ranging support: a letter also co-signed by Torreon/Starlake Chapter President Dave Rico, Nageezi Chapter President Ervin Chavez and 102 supporting organizations, 17,000 petition signatures, plus resolutions from 15 chapters calling for an immediate moratorium on oil and gas leasing on public lands.

All of the documents called attention to the fact that 91 percent of the public lands controlled by the Farmington Field Office available for leasing already have been leased. Also reminding Leuders that the area was already a methane hotspot, the chapter leaders laid out their case.

“Leuders took notes, asked detailed questions; we felt heard,” Werito told the Times. “It’s not up to her,” said Domingo. “It’s in the Creator’s hands.” As the one-hour meeting turned into two, over 150 concerned citizens rallied outside in support of the chapter leaders, offering prayers and voluble vows to fight “forever.”

Rebecca Sobel of Wild Earth Guardians mocked the BLM’s move away from in-person auctions, saying: “They can go online, but they cannot hide from us.” She told the crowd that U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both D-N.M., as well as U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) “have all made statements to protect Chaco and Indigenous people, but so far have not taken meaningful action to stop next week’s sale.”

“The BLM should take the calls of Navajo Nation and other Tribal leaders seriously,” wrote Udall in a statement to the Times. “Chaco Canyon is an incredibly rich cultural destination that is deeply important to many Tribes in New Mexico. I have strongly urged Interior Department officials to ensure that oil and gas leasing near this iconic site is handled with the utmost consideration for Chaco Canyon’s archaeological and cultural value as the Department completes its new Resource Management Plan for the San Juan Basin.”

Added Heinrich, “Chaco Canyon is a New Mexico treasure and the home of remnants of ancient wonders. The impact oil and gas leasing could have on this area and the surrounding community must be addressed. The concerns of the local community should always be taken into consideration when it comes to managing our public lands, including the use development of minerals.”

At 10:45 a.m., Lente emerged from the meeting to say that he was heading to the Opening Day of the legislature where he would be introducing a joint House Senate Memorial asking BLM for an immediate moratorium. He told the crowd that in the meeting he’d voiced his “sometimes heavy-handed” comments as a Native American man. “We have our place,” he said, “and we intend to live on our lands forever. I am here for our children, for the unborn, to protect our way of life. We have nowhere else to go.” He said he was taking a stand to fight “against the almighty dollar” and for “our water, sky, and air.”

The letter, which was delivered to Leuders and members of the New Mexico U.S. Congressional delegation and State legislators, cited the need for environmental and health impacts as well as an environmental justice analysis: “We ask New Mexico BLM to cancel ALL oil and gas lease sales and stop approving permits to drill in the Mancos Shale/Gallup Formation, recognizing that they have no plan in place that has studied Mancos shale development that requires fracking. Until meaningful and lawful consultation occurs with impacted communities, and environmental justice impacts are assessed, there is no justification to proceed with the oil and gas lease sale contemplated for Jan. 25, 2017. We request that BLM cancel the proposed lease sale.”

Citing its own environmental review and tribal consultation, the BLM has already removed “over half of the 2,122.66 acres originally nominated for this sale,” per a written statement provided to the Navajo Times. It further stated that they limited the sale to parcels that are subject to what they term “drainage,” which can occur when adjacent producers can draw off resources from the federal mineral estate without compensation.

Of course, local voices are not unanimous against leasing. Wally Drangmeister, Director of Communications of the New Mexico Oil & Gas Association says developing gas and oil is not incompatible with preserving the environment. “All the required processes including the environmental assessment have been successfully completed by the BLM related to the lease sale, and we believe the sale should go forward as scheduled on Jan. 25, 2017,” wrote Drangmeister in a statement to the Times.

“We believe the tracks being offered for lease can be developed in a manner that protects the environment while bringing the jobs and economic activity that this region needs to be successful. It is both ironic and unfortunate when elitists from Santa Fe drive up to Farmington to protest the very energy they use.”

Opposition to the sale is uniting Navajo and Pueblo people who are joining together to protect the shared cultural resources represented by Chaco. Twenty-five Puebloans, mostly young people, attended an educational meeting about the threats to Chaco Canyon organized by Beata Tsosie, Environmental Justice Program Coordinator of Tewa Women United.

The four-hour meeting held on Saturday, Jan. 15, informed attendees about fracking and other acts of “environmental violence” according to Tsosie.

Daniel Tso, former Torreon council delegate, who had initiated the request for the meeting with Leuders, thanked the crowd who had waited for the leaders to emerge, and encouraged further action. “We need for people to stand with us like you stood with the people of Standing Rock,” he said. Clearly moved that the crowd had waited for hours in the cold, he summarized his hopes. “I told the state director, you’ve got the authority to cancel this sale. We are here to touch your heart and help your mind to decide to cancel.”

Though the BLM did not commit to the cancellation of the sale at the meeting, it may before the 25th. “This one-hour meeting that lasted for two should demonstrate that the BLM is clearly interested in your opinions as expressed in your letters, petitions, and presence,” said Donna Hummel, BLM spokeswoman. While Hummel accepted a foot-high stack of documents in support of the cancellation of the sale, Mariel Nanasi, Executive Director of New Energy Economy led the ralliers in a spontaneous chant: “End lease sales, end lease sales, end lease sales…”