Federal Government Defers Lands Near Bears Ears from Oil and Gas Leasing

April 2, 2019 by Brian Turner

The National Trust, tribes, and local preservation advocacy partners deferred 19 parcels from an oil and gas lease sale on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land in southeastern Utah. For over a decade, we fought to win protections for this remarkable cultural landscape, which contains sites inextricably linked to Bears Ears and constitutes a critical part of its history. Yet over the last two years, BLM threatened significant long-term damage to these lands, dramatically increasing oil and gas leasing activity in the area east of Highway 191.

BLM did not cancel these lease sales entirely, but instead instituted a temporary deferral for approximately six months to conduct additional environmental analysis. Still, the news is a relief for indigenous people with ancestral ties to the area, including the Acoma Pueblo, the All Pueblo Governors Council, and the Hopi Tribe, who objected strenuously to this and other recent lease sales near Bears Ears. BLM indicated that subsequent consultation is likely to involve the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and tribes and other preservation advocates will have an opportunity to provide further input.

The National Trust is committed to ensuring that BLM takes the views of people affected by oil and gas leasing in the region seriously, and that BLM honors its “responsibility for the preservation of historic property that is owned or controlled by the agency.” 54 U.S.C. § 306101(a)(1).

We’ve had additional concerns with BLM’s justification of its “no adverse effects” determinations, including:

  • Drawing arbitrary and overly narrow limits for assessing effects on cultural resources (half a mile surrounding each parcel);
  • Making a limited effort to identify the extent and value of cultural resources included in the parcels to be leased (currently only requiring a review of existing literature);
  • Refusing to assess the significance of individual cultural resources as part of National Register districts;
  • Failing to consider impacts to the Alkali Ridge National Historic Landmark; and
  • Failing to consider the cumulative effects of oil and gas drilling surrounding Bears Ears.

BLM has more work ahead to assure the public and tribes that it will minimize harm to priceless cultural resources and artifacts before they lease the land in question. In collaboration with local partners and tribes, the National Trust hopes to expand this temporary reprieve into significant and lasting protections for this extraordinary cultural landscape.

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