Attacking Chaco Canyon

June 05, 2013

Voices, Envirolocal

Imagine traveling to one of the world’s greatest and most desolately beautiful monuments to human genius and finding when you get there that drilling equipment, jack pumps, truck dust, back up beepers, and road noise have been allowed to destroy the mysterious solitude of such a singular and magnificent place.

That’s what will happen to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park if the state of New Mexico and our congressional delegation doesn’t insist upon an extensive buffer zone around the 53-square mile monument where drilling and other extractive process are prohibited. This is not only a buffer zone, it’s a zone of respect.

Chaco Canyon and environs has been threatened many times over the decades by the fossil fuel industry. It’s been saved time and again by politicians of conscience and activists who work for the good of us all. Some companies have actually applied for permits to drill inside the precinct of the monument, as if the liaise faire self-interest of an oil company outweighed the world community’s desire to create an ongoing opportunity for a unique cultural learning experience.

There is only one Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Who has the economic right to deface it?

Chaco Canyon is within the Navajo reservation some 150 miles from Albuquerque. It’s surrounded by malpais, and connected to the world by a good road from New Mexico 550 for about 10 miles and then a dirt road, well graded but very slippery when wet. The canyon is somewhat difficult to get to. So the people who visit Chaco really want to be there.  And they deserve the complete and, dare I say, pure experience without compromises.

The Albuquerque Journal in a recent editorial urged the creation of a buffer zone around the park but added “but not as far as the eye can see,” an utterly misguided suggestion and completely out of touch with the realities of the Chaco landscape. The Journal advocates a Fox News “fair and balanced” approach between fossil fuel corporations, who have the richest and most powerful lobby on earth, and voices crying in the wilderness for vivid, mind expanding educational experiences. Fair and balanced here means ruining what cannot be replaced or repaired so the richest of the rich can make more money.

The Journal represents contemporary “conservatism” to a tee – money before anything and everything else.

The editorial said that because there are already windmills, stock tanks and “homes” in the vicinity that a few paltry oil and gas rigs would blend right in. What are they thinking?

The view from most vantage points in Chaco Canyon is still pristine, except on moonless nights when stargazers in the vast darkness of the canyon have to contend with distant glows from Farmington, Aztec, Bloomfield, and Albuquerque-Rio Rancho. And who knows what kind of light pollution might come with drilling rigs and jack pumps?

The canyon in daylight is so free of jarring noise, even with its modest tourist traffic, that when I filmed a KNME Colores segment on “Chaco Body,” a book by photographer Kirk Gittings and myself, we had to pause until distant trucks, and even, planes went by. Any noise is an intrusion there.

A buffer zone needs to be very large, beyond earshot and what the eye can see, because drillers will push their rigs to the very edge of the zone, like they have at WIPP near Carlsbad. Oil rigs bristle around the forbidden zone over WIPP’s massive amounts of radioactive waste buried a half mile underground. If you look at the southeastern New Mexico from the air, you see what drilling and pumping for oil and gas does to a landscape: spread out over the terrain is a lace pattern of little squares with dots in the middle of them literally as far as the eye can see, roads and rigs in seemingly endless profusion. That’s not what we want anywhere close to Chaco Canyon and its World Heritage Site of Pueblo Bonito.  Of course the San Juan Basin, where Chaco sits, has a similar pattern of roads and wells but far from the monument. Leaving the Chaco area alone would not cause the oil and gas industry serious deprivation.

Accommodating corporate greed is not the responsibility of the taxpayers who fund national monuments.

The huge archaeological remains of pre-Pueblo peoples in Chaco Canyon represent a rich, highly sophisticated culture that flourished from between 900 to 1150 AD. Many scholars have speculated on the reasons for its sudden demise. I’m inclined toward an answer offered by archaeologist David Stewart in his book Anasazi America. Stewart contrasts power and efficiency, saying that the massive building projects in Chaco and the social power structure they imply were not suited, in the end, to the efficiency demands of the unpredictable arid climate of the region – much, need I say, like our own predicament.

When the climate changed into a period of extended drought, Chaco’s social hierarchy broke down. The elites lost power and were deserted by the people they had controlled. Pueblo people, apparently, never again chose power over efficiency, and have survived, culturally intact, to this day, despite EuroAmerican  colonialization.




This piece was written by:

V.B. Price's photo

V.B. Price

V.B. Price is editor and co-founder of New Mexico Mercury. He is the former editor of Century Magazine and New Mexico Magazine, former city editor of the New Mexico Independent, and long-time columnist for the late Albuquerque Tribune. His latest book is The Orphaned Land: New Mexico’s Environment Since the Manhattan Project. He retired as the editor of the Mary Burritt Christiansen Poetry Series at UNM Press in 2010. He has taught in the UNM Honors Program since l986.

Contact V.B. Price

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