SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The U.S. government allowed oil and gas companies to start making lease bids Monday on lands considered archaeologically sensitive near a national monument stretching across the Utah-Colorado border that houses sacred tribal sites.
Included in the Bureau of Land Management’s September oil and gas lease sale is about 47 square miles of land north of Hovenweep National Monument, a group of prehistoric villages overlooking a canyon with connections to several indigenous tribes throughout the U.S. 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 states like 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 up the 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.
The plan was met with criticism from environmentalists and tribal organizations, who argued that drilling in 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 grass-roots 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 over the impacts 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 star-gazing opportunities. Southeast Utah is known for its sweeping desert landscapes and expansive night skies.
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 oil industry trade group Western Energy Alliance countered that the plans are far from the boundaries of 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.