Mesa Verde National Park is one our nation’s most beloved national parks. Established in 1906, Mesa Verde is the only national park established exclusively for the protection of archaeological resources. The park’s remote cliff dwellings have stood for centuries and are recognized the world around, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors to southwest Colorado each year.
However, oil and gas development is rapidly changing the landscape surrounding Mesa Verde. Over the past decade, the oil and gas industry has drilled thousands of wells in the San Juan Basin, which sits astride the border between Colorado and New Mexico.
On some days, Americans traveling cross-country may come to find the view of Mesa Verde’s cherished cliff dwellings clouded by pollution from existing oil and gas development and nearby coal-fired power plants.
Adding insult to injury, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s Colorado office has failed to support the National Park Service’s efforts of good stewardship. In February 2013, the Colorado BLM Director proposed oil and gas leasing on the doorstop of Mesa Verde. The oil and gas industry asked the Bureau of Land Management to auction land just a few short miles east of the national park, within a scenic corridor that connects Mesa Verde to local municipalities including Durango and Mancos. This happened despite the fact that the BLM’s management plan for the area is almost thirty years old and lacks a strategy to address the declining air quality at Mesa Verde and extraordinarily high level of development in the San Juan Basin.
The leasing proposal was widely opposed, including by the National Park Service. In a comment letter to the BLM, the National Park Service stated that “potentially significant environmental effects could occur” on the park’s air quality from drilling the leases and that the BLM should wait until it had revised its management plan for the area and addressed the air quality problems. The National Park Service also criticized the BLM failing to follow formal guidelines issued by the Secretary of Interior which required the BLM to consult with other agencies when the resources those agencies protect could be affected by oil and gas projects on neighboring land. One week prior to the lease sale, the BLM relented and withdrew the land near Mesa Verde.
But the threat remains, as the lands are still open for oil and gas leasing under the outdated management plan. In fact, the Colorado BLM said lands near Mesa Verde could be on the auction block again as early as August or November of 2013.
There is a path forward to protect the park for future generations. The BLM can form an interagency workgroup to address the air quality problems at Mesa Verde, as requested by the National Park Service. The BLM could also implement a “Master Leasing Plan” for the San Juan area which would take a more detailed look at how best to protect lands near Mesa Verde and to provide better analysis for air quality impacts to the park.
The future of America’s most cherished and celebrated archeological sites depends on the BLM taking a smarter and more responsible approach to energy development in the San Juan Basin.