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With the Bureau of Land Management poised to offer new oil and gas leases in the heart of southeast Utah's archaeological stronghold, various groups are demanding the agency reconsider 10 parcels slated for auction in February because it has not adequately documented cultural resources on them.
"These parcels are located amidst one of the densest concentrations of cultural resources in Utah, if not the American Southwest. These cultural resources are sacred to several Native American tribes, including the Hopi," wrote Amy Cole, of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in a protest to the BLM.
Friends of Cedar Mesa and the National Parks Conservation Association joined the protest, asking BLM state director Juan Palma to "defer" leasing decisions on parcels covering 11,027 acres mostly in and around Montezuma Canyon.
The National Trust proposed establishing a national monument at Montezuma Canyon and two other areas in San Juan County to protect ruins, burial sites, rock art and other remnants of the Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, who developed a civilization here 1,000 years ago.
On Feb. 17, the BLM intends to auction drilling rights to 58 federal parcels covering 62,000 acres. Meanwhile, it is soliciting public comment on its May auction, where it proposes to sell leases for 23 parcels covering 25,874 acres administered by the Cedar City and Richfield field offices.
In the protest submitted Monday, the groups argued industrial development could harm archaeological resources.
"Where oil and gas development has occurred it has been done badly in the past. It can be done responsibly but only if we take the time to do it right," said Friends of Cedar Mesa executive director Josh Ewing.
The protest highlighted Alkali Ridge, where the BLM had proposed to lease six parcels, according to a recent environmental assessment (EA) of the lease sale. The agency pulled three of these parcels and another three elsewhere after fielding objections from the Hopi and others who pointed out that the BLM's own records show they contained many sites.
"These other parcels [that are to be leased] could easily have these same high densities. We just don't know," Ewing said.
And the BLM has yet to address the Hopis' broader concerns, the protest contends.
"These sites contain valuable prehistoric information, are visited frequently by archaeology enthusiasts, and contribute significantly to America's cultural heritage," Cole wrote. "Yet, in spite of the area's significance, the region remains poorly documented."
Monday's protest also echoes concerns raised by the National Park Service, which contends rig lighting could degrade the clarity of the night skies at Hovenweep and Natural Bridges national monuments, both designated as "international dark sky parks." In its comments to the EA, the park service said the BLM must consider night skies and soundscapes as natural resources worthy of protection. Drilling noise can travel six miles, and one parcel is that close to Hovenweep's heavily visited Square Tower.
"The sky glow from unmitigated lighting of industrial facilities can be detected up to 35 miles away from the light source under some conditions," parks superintendent Kate Cannon wrote.
She asked her sister Interior agency to defer leasing two parcels near Hovenweep or apply stipulations imposing timing restrictions and other measures to protect star gazers' experience.
"We acknowledge the importance of adequate lighting for worker safety, but advances are being made in the design of lighting systems for oil and gas drilling rigs that do not sacrifice safety for the protection of dark night skies," Cannon wrote.
But historic preservation carries far greater legal weight. Federal law requires the BLM to make "a reasonable and good faith effort" to identify historic properties before authorizing development, to determine what would pose "adverse effects" and to consult with interested tribes.
The National Trust protest contends BLM has not met these obligations.
The agency maintains a database of known sites, but its adequacy has been challenged numerous times and the BLM conceded it is far from complete.
Ewing spent a recent afternoon roaming a parcel to be leased near Coal Bed Village, an important archaeological area east of Blanding where the Anasazi once thrived. Ewing detected 10 archaeological features that are not listed on the BLM database.
"We are trying point out that areas like Cedar Mesa or Montezuma Canyon, that have incredibly significant archaeology, ought to be treated differently. They acknowledge that the majority of sites haven't been recorded, and yet they are making decisions based on incomplete database," Ewing said.