Chaco Canyon was the heart of a system of more than 150 great houses throughout the San Juan Basin of northwestern New Mexico more than 800 years ago. It is now part of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park. (Philip Greenspun/AP)

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Friday abruptly postponed an oil and gas lease sale for parcels near Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a sacred tribal site in northwestern New Mexico, saying a detailed analysis of more than 5,000 cultural sites will be done before lots are designated for auction.

The proposed lease sale, which includes 25 parcels covering 4,434 acres within New Mexico’s Rio Arriba, Sandoval and San Juan counties, has sparked an outcry from tribal officials and conservationists. They argue that drilling near a UNESCO World Heritage Site could damage prized cultural artifacts. More than 450 protests were filed against the auction.

The department’s plan is part of a broader push to auction off a slew of leases near protected areas in the West, with auctions scheduled this month in Montana and Utah, and it remains unclear whether those events will be postponed, as well.

“After hearing from tribes, Senators Udall and Heinrich, historic preservation experts and other stakeholders, I’ve decided to defer the sale that was scheduled for later this month,” Zinke said, referring to the state’s Democratic senators, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich. “I’ve always said there are places where it is appropriate to develop and where it’s not. This area certainly deserves more study.”

President Theodore Roosevelt designated Chaco Canyon, which is owned and operated by the National Park Service, as a national monument under the Antiquities Act in 1907. But the monument protections do not apply to the Greater Chaco Region that includes areas under the Bureau of Land Management.

The Navajo Nation, which has ancestral ties there, as well as New Mexico’s Pueblos, have called for a drilling moratorium while there is a more extensive exploration of what artifacts could lie outside the park site. Experts have warned that drilling, as well as hydraulic fracturing, could damage fragile structures within the canyon itself.

The All Pueblo Council of Governors passed a resolution in September calling on Interior to “complete an ethnographic study of cultural landscape(s) within the Greater Chaco Region,” describing the area as “a center of Puebloan cultural and economic life where Pueblo people built great houses, astronomical observation sites, ceremonial kivas, and these areas continue to be places of prayer, pilgrimage and living connections to our ancestors.”

In 2016, the BLM’s field office and the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Navajo Regional Office began a review of how to manage resources of public and tribal lands in northwestern New Mexico. The Trump administration chose to auction off parcels that included BLM, private and tribal trust land before the review was completed.

Udall said in a statement he appreciated Zinke “listening to the concerns of New Mexicans and terminating the proposed lease sale in the Chaco region,” which he said will allow the tribes, local communities and industry to weigh in on the process.

“The collaboration between the Bureau of Land Management and the Bureau of Indian Affairs is critical to protecting important cultural and religious sites while planning for future energy development,” Heinrich said, “as well as incorporating tribal priorities into the planning process.”

Robert McEntyre, a spokesman for the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, said Friday that his industry wants federal officials to ensure that any auction complies with existing law. “We have no disagreement with the secretary or the BLM working to meet the requirements of the law,” he said. “Our only issue is that yet again BLM is missing a deadline that they set themselves.”

The bureau had pledged to hold quarterly lease sales whenever companies identified parcels on which they wanted to bid, McEntyre noted, and the new postponement pushes an auction to June at the earliest. Several experts said the interagency federal review of Greater Chaco Canyon would take at least another year.

“Deferred lease sales ultimately mean deferred money to the state, and deferred money for our schools,”  McEntyre said.

Kate P. Kelly, who directs the public lands program at the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, said in an email that the administration’s intensified focus on domestic energy production helps explain why Interior has not canceled the lease sale altogether.

“This is a deferral, not a cancellation, so it will be important to watch that the sale doesn’t come back in a few months and still threaten important cultural and natural resources,” Kelly said. “This near miss underscores why the administration is wrong to do away with landscape-level planning efforts that engage stakeholders early in the leasing process.”

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