A fight over the future of one of New Mexico’s greatest historic treasures could soon find a resolution when local county officials and the federal government finally answer a nearly seven year-old question: Should the road to Chaco Canyon be paved?
A visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a United Nations World Heritage Site in remote northwest New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon, requires commitment: Potable water is available, but scarce, and driving a car down a 13-mile stretch of dirt road toward the park entrance is often a teeth-chattering, suspension-straining experience. The road is rough enough to keep away large crowds of tourists and tour buses common at nearby Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
Once inside Chaco Canyon, cell phone service disappears and the blacktop picks up again, leaving you alone to wander about some of the Southwest’s most historically significant and spectacular Ancestral Puebloan ruins.
National Park Service regulations and prohibitions are less restrictive at Chaco than at Mesa Verde and other historical parks, where ranger escorts are often required to visit cliff dwellings and ruins.
The road to Chaco Canyon, San Juan County Road 7950, could be the key to the future of the park. A 2005 NPS study showed that if the road were improved with a hard surface, the number of visitors to Chaco would increase substantially, mostly because of its international notoriety and proximity to two metropolitan areas. Visitation barely topped 34,000 people in 2010 and 45,000 in 2005.
About seven years ago, San Juan County proposed to pave the road, citing a need for increased safety and to accommodate tourism. The proposal sparked fears among park staff and environmentalists that droves of new tourists will visit the park, overwhelming its meager facilities and creating new opportunities for the park’s irreplaceable treasures to be vandalized.
“Our restroom facilities have a total of six stalls,” said Chaco Culture Superintendent Barbara West. “When you have 50 people arrive, you’ve got a line out the door for some period of time.”
For advocates of the park, the argument against paving the road is simple.
“It would have a tremendous impact,” said Anson Wright, coordinator for the Chaco Alliance, the park’s chief advocacy group. “The park has no ability to protect what’s there now. There are sacred sites all over the park being defiled. You’d have to make it a park under glass.”
The intimacy with history the park offers visitors today could be lost, he said.
For San Juan County officials, the need for pavement seems equally simple.
“We believe that the citizens who live out there need a better road to travel in and out for an emergency,” said San Juan County Manager Keith Johns. “There needs to be a little better road for tourists who want to travel out to see Chaco Canyon. We’ve proposed to do a chip seal, so that’s why we’re there.”
The county used part of an $800,000 federal earmark, which was appropriated by Congress for the project in 2005, to conduct an environmental assessment on the project. The county is still waiting for the final result on the project’s environmental impact before it moves ahead with road improvements.
Johns said CR 7950 is one of the county’s busiest back roads, so paving the road is a logical thing to do. Many national parks, he said, have paved roads extending to their entrances.
But in a county overwhelmed with oil and gas development, Chaco is one of the few refuges from the industrialization, something that could creep closer to the park if the road were paved, said Mike Eisenfeld of the San Juan Citizens Alliance.
The county needs to ask how a paved road will impact Chaco Canyon before it makes its decision, he said.
After years of fighting among the county, environmental groups and the NPS over the fate of the road, a resolution may be within sight.
Chaco Culture officials struck a tentative deal with the county and the Navajo Nation, which owns the last four miles of the road closest to Chaco Canyon, that would have allowed the park to maintain to its standards eight miles of the road outside park boundaries.
But when NPS regional officials met with the Navajo Nation and the county in May, that idea was tossed out.
“We would have had to seek special legislation to do that,” said NPS Denver regional spokesman Rick Frost, adding that for the park to maintain a road outside its boundaries would set a precedent for the entire National Park System.
“Yellowstone plows a stretch of road called the Beartooth Highway at a significant cost to the park,” he said. “We didn’t want to continue that at Chaco and send a signal that we’re willing to do that in a place where it isn’t already taking place.”
For now, the NPS is taking a neutral position on the status of the road.
“We’re not going to tell them how to maintain their road,” Frost said.
Whichever direction the county decides to go, funding for the project may be running out.
Last December, the Federal Highway Administration, which administers the earmarked funds for the project, wrote the San Juan County Commission suggesting the remaining funds be used to gravel the road instead of pave it. If the county decides to forgo the gravel, the FHA suggested canceling the project altogether or use the money to re-chip seal a portion of the road already paved.
“Right now, we’re on hold,” Johns said. “We need to make a decision right away. My goodness, it’s been a long time. We finally need to nail this down.”
San Juan County is waiting on a letter from the NPS regional office in Denver stating its official position, and then the county will decide how to improve the road up to the Navajo Nation boundary, John said. From there, the status of the road’s last four miles before the park is up to the Navajos and the NPS.
Whatever the outcome, those who are trying to protect Chaco Canyon are trying to find ways of managing new visitors sure to visit regardless of the road’s status.
“There are a lot of Third World countries that have issues protecting World Heritage resources while having visitors,” West said. “We’re working with a lot of people in the World Heritage community to see if there’s a way we can effectively deal with visitation and protect these incredible resources. It’s a hard one.”
Bobby Magill can be found online at www.bobbymagill.com.