Don’t Pave Chaco

The Chaco Alliance is a grass roots citizens’ group dedicated to preserving and protecting Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Although our primary focus at this time is to stop the paving of the road into Chaco, we are interested in all threats posed to the canyon, including those posed by energy exploration in the area.

Chaco Culture NHP in North – Central New Mexico is a very special place. Chaco photograph It was inhabited for many hundreds of years and its culture peaked a millennium ago – before that of the more widely known Mesa Verde site. It is located in San Juan County, New Mexico and is accessible via US Highway 550, County Road (CR) 7900 and finally CR7950. Chaco is a World Heritage site and to those of us who have spent time there, it is a gem that is not duplicated anywhere else in the United States.

Because CR7950 is currently unpaved, the number of visitors to Chaco remains moderate. The result is that those who do make the effort have an experience that cannot be duplicated at highly impacted sites such as Mesa Verde. There is no need to sign up for “tours”. One can drive their own vehicle on the park roads, hike or bicycle. Permits for backcountry walks are readily available, free with Park admission and unencumbered with quota systems.

All of that may soon change! Federal money has been allotted to improve (pave) the sixteen mile dirt road (three miles of the sixteen have already been paved using New Mexico funds). An NPS study indicates that visitation levels could soar more than five fold, overwhelming the infrastructure and staff while putting sacred sites at risk. The quality of the visitor experience will also be irrevocably altered. The unpaved road has long protected the canyon. Immediate public outcry is needed now to save the park from becoming a tour bus turnaround.

Please join us them in stopping any paving. Email Congressman Tom Udall, he earmarked the funding, and recommend that any road improvements be in the form of fencing, good signs, and proper maintenance. Urge him not to grant any more money for this project (see 2008 March/April Rio Grande Sierran: Chaco Update, below). We are pleased to announce that the San Juan Citizen’s Alliance and the 8,000 member Rio Grande Chapter of the New Mexico Sierra Club have formally stated their opposition to the paving.

Because of pressure from the group and others, the Federal Highway Administration has lifted the Categorical Exclusion and agreed to run an Environmental Assessment (EA) under NEPA. URS Corporation is working with San Juan County, NMDOT, and the Federal Highway Administration to evaluate alternatives for improving the unpaved portion of CR 7950. The County continues to pursue paving although the low-impact options we have been presenting will be considered.

Attendance at the public meetings is crucial, and we will post those times and places, when they are known, on the web site. Input via email is also important, and although many of you have already written, it is important to write again. Five main points must be stressed:

1) The paving of the road will be a disaster to this World Heritage Site. Increased visitation will overwhelm the staff and infrastructure, threaten sacred/archaeological sites, and change the nature of the visitor experience forever.

2) An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) must be completed, not simply the Environmental Assessment (EA).

3) Public meetings must be held throughout the state, not just in San Juan County. As mentioned in the July/August update article below, newspapers in Albuquerque and Santa Fe have opposed the paving.

4) Improvement to the road needs to be in the form of good maintenance, fencing, and good signs, not paving. Paving will decrease the safety of the road.

5) All planned energy exploration near Chaco needs to be made public. A protective zone must be established around the park. Our organization also continues to research whether proper consultation has occurred with the numerous Native American tribes that claim cultural affiliation with Chaco.

Thanks to all of you for all the support.