image of Oil and gas fields near Chaco

By Teresa Seamster, 
Northern New Mexico Group chair

For the past year, legal efforts and public comments have failed to halt leases to develop Mancos Shale oil on 13 parcels covering 20,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest north and east of Cuba, N.M.

The Bureau of Land Management has granted drilling permits for two wells near Lake Abiquiú, and fears of water contamination and other toxic releases are growing locally.

A recent comment letter to the Santa Fe National Forest was prepared for the Greater Chaco Coalition by Teresa Seamster of the Rio Grande Chapter and Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance and was signed by 94 organizations and individuals. The letter focused on four of 12 “focus areas” addressed by the Santa Fe Forest Revision Plan: Importance of Tribal Lands, Resilient Habitats, Wildlife and Oil Leasing Impacts.

Highlighted among the concerns is that Santa Fe National Forest manages one of the largest collections of heritage resources in the United States. This is a legacy of cultural sites and landscapes central to the history of the Native people and multicultural population currently living in the area. These sites are threatened by human activities including vandalism, destruction by extractive industries and by rising temperatures, wildfires and flood events.

Three devastating wildfires, starting with the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, almost ended the cultural-preservation program in the SFNF. The damage was so severe that the forest office proposed disbanding it until it was suggested that experienced stewards organize themselves into groups to train and manage volunteers as site inspectors and monitors and the forest provide the oversight. The result was the Site Steward Council that monitors cultural sites in the 1.6 million acres of the forest.

But the threats to physical sites are better documented than the threats to unmarked sacred ceremonial sites as well as high places deemed holy by today’s descendants of Native people. More collaboration is needed between forest planners and tribal land and water managers to protect ancient landscapes as well as monitor resources such as wildlife and water that move across forest boundaries.

The decision to lease land for horizontal drilling and fracking will have far-reaching consequences for the headwaters of the Pecos River, Gallinas River and Jemez River, and traditional livelihoods of outdoor recreation, fishing, hunting and gathering forest products. The Forest Revision Plan needs to protect streambeds, arroyos and floodplains from oil and gas pipelines that are often placed in these areas and then exposed to ruptures, leaks and contamination.

Many lakes and streams provide some of the state’s top-quality habitat for trout and native fish species of greatest value to anglers and subsistence fishermen. Local economies depend on wilderness trekking, pack trips, whitewater rafting on the Rio Grande and Rio Chama, hunting in the forest and exploring 1,000 miles of trails in four unique wildernesses: the Pecos, San Pedro Peaks, Dome and Chama.

Forest-wide monitoring and mitigation for damaged streams and prime wildlife habitat needs to be a Forest Service priority under the Revision Plan.

For the signatories from the Greater Chaco Coalition, the greatest concern continues to be the development of gas and oil in an area that has been free of this industry.

The Forest Service has the authority to deny the surface leases to the Bureau of Land Management, which holds the subsurface mineral rights. It also has the authority and mandate to protect the land, water and wildlife of the forest. The deadline for comments on the preliminary Assessment of the Revision Plan was December 10.

Further public comment periods will be scheduled in 2016 during this important two-year planning process.

Learn more: Coalition to Protect Greater Chaco | San Juan Citizens Alliance

Image from San Juan Citizens Alliance website

Santa Fe National Forest gets earful from Chaco Coalition
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