January 1, 2009
By ARTHUR H. ROTSTEIN Associated Press Writer
Environmentalists are concerned about possible mining within expanded boundaries of Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park and a planned natural gas well on a New Mexico national monument.
Critics and parks officials say the potential mineral extraction is possible because of privately held lands in the national park system.
A large and now-valuable potash deposit lies under a 195-square-mile addition to the Petrified Forest National Park that Congress authorized in 2004 but failed to fund. That means the park does not own all the land within the expanded area and can't stop mining unless it buys the property.
And at the Aztec Ruins National Monument in northwestern New Mexico, at least one additional natural gas well appears to be on the horizon, with another well also proposed for coalbed methane extraction at the half-square mile monument, said its archaeologist, Gary Brown. The site includes the remains of ancient homes and roundhouses occupied by Pueblo peoples.
Three natural gas wells currently are operating in private landholdings within the monument.
"These are symptomatic of a great problem found in the park system," said Frank Buono, a retired national park superintendent now living in Sierra Vista.
More than 10 percent of the national park system's 131,250 square miles are still privately held lands, and those owners have property rights, said Buono, who also is a board member of the Washington-based Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
The root of the problem, he said, is that funds for the National Park Service to buy those private holdings have virtually dried up.
If new wells and mining occur, said Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, it would change the character of both parks.
"In the case of Aztec Ruins, we're talking about multiple oil companies drilling right next to archaeological features. And presumably, people are not going to the monument to watch derricks."
But Ed Hartman, owner of Manana Gas Inc., said its plans to drill sometime next year are mindful of the site's historic significance.
"We're very much aware of the need to protect the Aztec Ruins," said Hartman, whose small energy company is headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M.
Hartman said the new well would be situated on a hill about 100 feet higher than and a half mile from the ruins, and that a derrick used for drilling would be dismantled once the well is completed, leaving only surface equipment.
But drilling wells does have an affect, although its not an intolerable one, said Brown, the monument's archaeologist.
"There is a certain amount of noise as well as the activity of having trucks and personnel," he said. "And all three of the (current) wells require access along the roads, and archaeological sites have been impacted by two of the access roads."
Petrified Forest Acting Superintendent Pat Thompson said the national park doesn't own the land within the expanded boundaries.
Instead, it's a combination of privately owned and state-owned property, "so the park has no control over what goes on in that proposed expansion," she said.
Whether owners of the potash leases in Arizona will mine will depend on what the price of potash is, and also whether it will be strip-type mining or underground mining, Thompson said.
"I have not heard from anybody, and I do not know what they would choose," she said.
Mining cannot occur within the park itself; Congress has put federal lands within a national park off-limits to hardrock mining and leases of oil, gas and other minerals, including potash, with limited leasing exceptions on three national recreation areas.
Where a valuable mineral deposit underlies nonfederal lands inside a park boundary, the owners of the subsurface rights can exercise those rights at some point, Buono said.
He noted that a current fight is brewing in Pennsylvania over land authorized for a national memorial marking where Flight 93 crashed on 9-11. That land remains in private hands and its owners have refused to sell so far, he said.