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Conservationists Sue Federal Government To Protect 'Archaeologically Rich Area' In San Juan County

The area between Bears Ears and Hovenweep national monuments is rich in archaeological sites, according to retired Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Don Simonis. 

Courtesy of Friends of Cedar Mesa
The area between Bears Ears and Hovenweep national monuments is rich in archaeological sites, according to retired Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Don Simonis.

A conservation group in San Juan County is suing the Bureau of Land Management over tens of thousands of acres of public land it leased to oil and gas developers in 2018.

The land lies between Bears Ears and Hovenweep national monuments. The lawsuit claims drilling there could cause irreparable damage to cultural sites.

Don Simonis is an archaeologist who worked for the Bureau of Land Management in San Juan County for almost a decade, before retiring in 2017.

“It’s unbelievable,” Simonis said. “This area has the greatest density of sites of any place in the United States.”

He said opening the area up to increased drilling puts those sites at risk, because oil and gas development requires new roads to be built, which makes it easier for people to get to the sites.

“If more and more people are out there, and it’s not controlled, it just becomes a real nightmare as far as management goes,” he said.

Josh Ewing is the director of Friends of Cedar Mesa, the group that brought the lawsuit. He said the bureau did not properly assess the potential damage to these sites before leasing the land under former President Donald Trump.

“Friends of Cedar Mesa is not against all energy development,” Ewing said. “But the way the Trump administration went about this was just a firesale of leasing. They leased off more than 100,000 acres of this archeologically rich area in a matter of two years.”

President Joe Biden’s administration has currently paused all leasing on federal public land. But existing leases, like these, can still be developed.

Ewing said the goal of the lawsuit is to stop drilling from taking place on the parcels leased in 2018. But he said he hopes it also encourages the bureau to develop a plan that protects archaeology, if it resumes leasing in the area.

That could be done through a document called a master leasing plan, which would lay out where leasing can and can’t occur on federal public land. The bureau began developing a master leasing plan for San Juan County under the Obama administration, but it was discontinued under Trump.

James Allison, an archaeology professor at Brigham Young University, worked on the plan for San Juan County. He said it’s a shame it wasn’t finalized because it would help reduce conflicts in the archaeologically rich county.

“It was a more sensible approach to consider the impacts ahead of time,” Allison said. “With the idea that if you do that right, that should reduce the amount of litigation and give everyone more certainty about things.”

Allison said he hopes the bureau brings master leasing plans back.

The Biden administration recently kicked off a review of the oil and gas leasing process. The Department of the Interior has said it will release an interim report of the review this summer.

Copyright 2021 KUER 90.1. To see more, visit KUER 90.1.

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas, where she attended the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Journalism. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. Now, she is a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country. She’s excited to be living in and reporting on San Juan County, one of the most beautiful — and interesting — parts of the United States.

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