U.S. delays oil, gas lease decision

DENVER (AP) — The U.S. government on Tuesday delayed a decision on a contentious proposal to allow oil and gas drilling near Great Sand Dunes National Park in southern Colorado, saying it first wants to consult with the Navajo Nation, which owns land in the area.

The Bureau of Land Management had planned to sell drilling rights on 29 square miles of public land east of the park at a Sept. 6 auction, but Navajo officials requested a formal consultation, and the agency agreed.

The Huerfano County commissioners, in whose county the parcels lie, had also voted to recommend to the BLM a delay of the upcoming lease sale.

The bureau said the land could still be offered at a future auction.

A spokesman for the Navajo Nation didn’t immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

The Navajo reservation — in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah — doesn’t include Colorado. But tribal President Russell Begaye told The Denver Post the Navajos consider the area near Great Sand Dunes park to be part of their ancestral lands and bought 26 square miles there last year.

“This land is sacred and the Navajo Nation will always protect the beauty and sacredness of the land,” he told the newspaper in May.

Environmental groups opposed the sale of drilling leases, saying the land is too close to the park, a wilderness area and wildlife habitat. Some warned drilling waste or spills could threaten water quality.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense they would choose this location,” said Kimberley Pope, an organizer for the Sierra Club in Colorado.

Some state and federal officials also raised questions.

Great Sand Dunes park officials were concerned about the effects drilling could have on air quality, noise and dark skies, according to Fred Bunch, the park’s chief of resource management, who submitted written comments to the Bureau of Land Management about the potential sale.

The bureau oversees the sale of minerals under most federal land.

The Colorado land under consideration for drilling is about 200 south of Denver and reaches to within a mile of the park’s eastern boundary. The sand dunes are about 4 1/2 miles west, but mountains stand between the potential drilling sites and the dunes.

The Western Energy Alliance, which represents the oil and gas industry, said the Bureau of Land Management should complete the consultation with the Navajos quickly and put the rights up for auction soon.

Kathleen Sgamma, president of the alliance, said the land isn’t near the Navajo Nation, and drilling would be done in a way that protects culturally important features.

“Of course, the leases are on the other side of a mountain range, so they would not impact the Great Sand Dunes National Park either,” she said.

“The sand dunes, like other national parks, is a treasure set aside for people to enjoy for generations. The oil and natural gas industry has no desire to operate within nor disturb the park,” added Aaron Johnson, vice president of public affairs at Western Energy Alliance.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper had asked federal officials to listen to the Navajos’ concerns and was pleased that they did, spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said.

“I am so relieved that the BLM is finding a pause and realizing that they need to consult with the Navajo Nation, who own the other half of the ranch that was sold late last year,” said Christine Canaly, director of San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council. “It’s the former Wolf Springs Ranch that contain a significant amount of these nominated parcels that are being pursued for development. The Upper Huerfano river valley deserves further analysis to protect its valuable water resources. Designated wilderness directly borders some of these other potential parcels as does a mile boundary line of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Air quality is an essential resource that we share on both sides of the Sangre mountains as the recent fires have made abundantly clear.”

Follow Dan Elliott at http://twitter.com/DanElliottAP. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/dan%20elliott.

(Editor’s note: Comments from the SLV Ecosystem Council and Aaron Johnson were added to Dan Elliott’s article.)