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Conference attendees listen to Esther Willetto with the Bureau of Land Management on Wednesday during a presentation on the challenges faced by oil and gas companies that want to drill on the reservation at the 2014 Four Corners Oil and Gas Conference at McGee Park in Farmington. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

‘Checkerboard’ area creates challenges for oil and gas development

Hannah Grover for The Daily Times, Farmington, N.M.

FARMINGTON — For the last 32 years, Esther Willetto has traveled through Navajo Nation talking to the residents about oil and gas development and what it means for them.

Willetto, a Bureau of Land Management employee and translator, spoke to oil and gas industry representatives about the challenges of drilling on the reservations during the 2014 Four Corners Oil and Gas Conference on Wednesday at the McGee Park Convention Center.

She specifically addressed the complicated nature of the “checkerboard” area stretching from Burnham to the Bisti Wilderness and Torreon.

This area contains Indian Allotted land parcels mixed in with BLM land and land owned by numerous other entities.

In 1982, the BLM released an Environmental Impact Statement for coal extraction in that vast area.

“Lo and behold, we raised the roof on the checkerboard area,” Willetto said of the uproar that followed.

One of the issues was who owned minerals and resources below the surface. While an individual owned the land, in some cases the subsurface belonged to the government, which could lease it out to companies for energy development.

Related: Mancos Shale oil exploration dominates conversation at Four Corners Oil and Gas Conference

Willetto said there is little controversy over energy development on the “checkerboard” area north of New Mexico Highway 550 partially because the only Navajo Community is the Blanco Canyon community.

“Currently now they (the Navajo) feel that everything south of 550 is theirs regardless of what they (the Navajo) are using it for,” she said.

Willetto’s job entails going to the Navajo communities and talking to them about the development, oftentimes in the Navajo language.

“The Navajo language is not simple,” she said. “The Navajo language is very descriptive.”

She said it is challenging to find words to describe important parts of oil and gas development, such as fracking or the element nitrogen, which is used in the fracking process.

“There were hours I had to go home and think these over and try to find out if I’m saying the right word,” she said.

She said she tries to reassure people, but still the Navajo are hesitant to believe her.

“People out there are saying, ‘what about our sacred sites? What about our burial sites? What about our medicinal plant gathering sites?'” she said.

She has suggested that the industry use GPS to mark these sites when they find them and avoid development in those areas.

She added that if people in the industry see Navajos engaged in ceremonies they stay out of the areas until the ceremonies are finished.

Another problem developers face is getting the Navajo to trust signed agreements, Willetto said.

She said this has roots in the government’s forced relocation and now many of the older Navajo will not sign contracts without having the contracts read to them word by word.

Willetto had three pieces of advice for people interacting with the Navajo: let them offer their hand first before shaking hands, do not look into their eyes and don’t take their pictures.

She also suggested going to chapter houses to meet with the Navajo because the majority of business is handled there.

She reminded the audience that many of the Navajo have traditions that are hard to change.

“We’re in a rapidly changing world,” she said. “It’s just shocking for these people”


Hannah Grover covers news, arts and religion for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 and hgrover@daily-times.com. Follow her @hmgrover on Twitter. 

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