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Disturbing the Pieces

Is New Mexico doing all it can to protect its ancient history?

February 25, 2009, 12:00 am

While the federal government oversees more than 40 percent of the lands in New Mexico, the State Land Office holds in trust 9 million surface acres and 13 million acres of mineral rights. Revenues earned from leasing those lands fund public schools, as well as hospitals, correctional facilities and certain water projects in the state.

The majority of that cash comes from oil and gas development; in the second quarter of 2009, oil and gas leases generated $170 million for the office. The action begins on the third Tuesday of each month when the State Land Office holds an oil and gas leasing auction.

The list of lands for lease, Eck says, is published before the sale and anyone can bid on the parcels, which are determined by the office or else nominated by industry. “Once the auction is over and the check passes from the hands of the bidder to the land office, they hold the lease,” he says. Unlike those who drill on federal lands, however, operators on state trust lands are not expected to consult with archaeologists.

Some leasees do contact him for guidance, he says. When that occurs, he instructs them to undertake a cultural resources survey. But Eck does not hear from many of the leasees and they are not obligated to contact his office before beginning work. In a follow-up e-mail, he estimates that between 10 and 20 percent of the leasees operating on state trust lands approach him for guidance and subsequently undertake archaeological surveys. He imagines the rest simply begin work without clearance—though he points out there is an “admonishment” in leases requiring operators to stop if they detect the presence of cultural resources and to immediately notify the State Land Office.

It’s obvious Eck cares about archaeological resources. But without coherent state laws in place (and charged with overseeing resources on some 13 million acres himself) it’s also clear that archaeological resources across the state are being threatened, lost and destroyed.

Many archaeologists, including Seymour, who owned a contract firm for many years, have firsthand knowledge of sites being destroyed on state trust lands. If operators aren’t required to complete an inventory, she asks, how will they know sites are there? And if the sites aren’t officially recorded, she points out, operators aren’t required to avoid them.

“I have seen some incredible sites that have been damaged or destroyed on projects that under other jurisdictions would have required archaeological survey and avoidance or mitigation of the impacts,” she writes in an e-mail, adding: “We are not just talking about flaked stone scatters, we are talking about major habitation sites, some stratified, some as valuable as any now listed on the National and State Register of Historic Properties.”

Former archaeologist Jim O’Donnell agrees. “It seems there is a big hole to fill when it comes to our knowledge of archaeological resources on state lands,” he says.

O’Donnell recalls a particular energy project he was surveying for in the Indian Flats near Carlsbad. According to O’Donnell—today a public lands activist—“When we came to the boundaries of state land we just hustled through because we weren’t required to survey them.” That’s a disgrace, he says: “Archaeological sites on state lands deserve at least the same protection as sites on federal lands; they deserve the same respect, care and consideration.”

Not only that, but expecting oil and gas workers or construction personnel to self-report archaeological resources—knowing full well that their identification will mean time delays and additional costs—is dodgy.

Seymour points out that in most instances, companies are unlikely to stop work or report the destruction of resources. And while Eck says that companies that do disturb, damage or destroy cultural resources are liable for those damages, he agrees that the oversight is left to leasees themselves. “I won’t live long enough to see every section of state land, let alone every acre, so I am reliant on others to report their activities and observations,” he says. “They are in a position of self-reporting: what they see and encounter and how they behave.”

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