WHAT IS CHACO?
Chaco Culture National Historic Park preserves a major prehistoric center of ceremony and trade in the San Juan Basin just south of Farmington, New Mexico. Natural beauty and cultural significance meet in this area of northwestern New Mexico where ruins, artifacts, and other archeological sites radiate from Chaco Canyon’s cultural epicenter. The extensive and well-preserved cultural history found here earned designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.
Around 200 A.D., the first farmers settled in what is now Chaco, using agriculture to supplement hunting and gathering and building small pithouses on the mesa for shelter. This era of early Pueblo culture lasted more than a half-century until drastic changes in the complexity and scale of building construction changed the face of both the culture and the landscape. For three hundred years, this new version of Pueblo culture (coined Anasazi) flourished, constructing impressive buildings and roads throughout the Greater Chaco Region, with Chaco Canyon as the epicenter. And then…. they vanished, abandoning Chaco Canyon around 1150 A.D. There are many ideas about the cause of this sudden exodus, including prolonged drought, but the likely complex reasons for this exodus remain a mystery.
Chacoan Great Houses
Amazing building skills are what most define the Chaco Culture. Massive greathouses are a significant divergence from traditional Pueblo settlements. Greathouses are unusually large multi-story masonry buildings made of stacked stone (usually sandstone) and mortar. In addition to their size, highly refined masonry techniques and advanced engineering make these structures truly spectacular featuring hundreds of rooms, some very large, and several circular kivas built within the main structure (in traditional Pueblo domestic settlements kivas were located in a central plaza). Each greathouse also had a separate great kiva nearby. Over 200 outlying Chacoan greathouses exist in the Greater Chaco Region with a bit of mystery still surrounding their purpose. Some believe they served as the center for massive settlements, while others them as trade centers or ceremonial developments.
Chacoan roads are another defining aspect of the Chaco Culture. An elaborate road system served to connect great houses and significant landscape features across the Greater Chaco Region. There are over 100 miles of prehistoric roads associated with Chaco, some of which can still be traced today. Like Chacoan great houses, these roads were massive and built with a high level of engineering skill. They were also remarkably linear. While most roads and trails contour with the landscape, Chacoan roads follow direct lines to a destination, often going over, rather than contouring around, major landscape features and taking angular bends instead of gentle curves. Some of these roads extended for miles in a single direction.
Chaco Culture was intimately linked to the stars. The Chacoan people were expert skywatchers, with a strong connection between celestial events and daily life. This connection to the stars is evident in the architecture of the great houses where architectural features are aligned with significant astronomical events. Similar alignments are found in observational and ceremonial sites throughout the Greater Chaco Region.
With astronomy as a center point of culture, dark night skies were an integral component of Chacoan life. This feature is largely preserved today as the night sky of the Greater Chaco Region remains one of the most unpolluted in the U.S. This unique characteristic is threatened by encroaching large-scale oil and gas development.
The Greater Chaco Landscape
The Greater Chaco Region radiates from the main park at its center, expanding across the Four Corners Region and the San Juan Basin with ties to other well-known cultural sites such as Mesa Verde, Canyon of the Ancients, Bears Ears, Hovenweep and Aztec Ruins. Chacoan roads, greathouses, villages, sacred sites and other places of significance are scattered across this larger landscape. Chaco and the Greater Chaco Region continue to retain significance to modern-day indigenous peoples as a connection to their ancestors and history, places of traditional use and sacred sites, and for some their home.
The natural landscape of the Greater Chaco Region is as unique as its cultural landscape. At an elevation of 6,000 feet, this arid region of high desert can be incredibly hot during the summer and bitterly cold in the winter – a harsh place for human settlement. Surreal badlands, broad washes, sage shrublands, amazing fossils, expansive views and unique habitat surround Chaco. In the Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness north of the park petrified logs and stumps are scattered across colorful badlands and discoveries of significant dinosaur bones have provided scientists a glimpse into the region’s biological history. Southeast of the Bisti and north of Chaco, the Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness Study Area spans over 6,000 acres of hoodoos and badlands further contributing to undeveloped lands in the Greater Chaco Region and preserving habitat for grassland species like elk and mule deer.
Outside of protected areas, many lands rich with both cultural and natural resources remain threatened by oil and gas development. The impacts of extreme development – primarily on BLM lands in the Greater Chaco Region – are evident in extreme habitat fragmentation, gas flares, industrial infrastructure and industrial traffic. A methane “hot spot” has been identified over the Four Corners region with most of the methane emissions attributed to oil and gas development. Nearby communities – mostly native – have reported elevated levels of air quality-related health issues and contamination of water sources from fracking operations.
Making sure remaining undeveloped lands are managed to protect the sensitive natural and cultural landscapes of Greater Chaco and the people who live here is an integral component of maintaining Chaco’s legacy.
Traditional Use, Stories & Sacred Sites
Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco Region encompass ancestral homelands for Pueblo, Navajo and several other Southwestern tribes. To many, Chaco is not just a place of the past, but a living entity woven into the past, present and future of native life. Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Apache, Hopi and Pueblo people still reside in the Greater Chaco Region where many continue to use these lands in traditional ways. These lands are home to many sacred sites. They connect present day people to their ancestors through stories and ceremony and provide the traditional foods and medicines used by native cultures here for centuries.
In oral traditions where oral history and storytelling weave the fabric of culture, preservation of the land that is connected to these stories helps the stories live on. When a piece of the landscape is altered, the story that goes with that land is lost along with the culture tied to both the story and the land. Preserving the sacred lands of the Greater Chaco Region helps to preserve traditional native culture and its stories for future generations while maintaining and environment that provides for native people now and into the future.
In February of 2017 an historic meeting took place between the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG) and leaders of the Navajo Nation – President Russell Begaye and Vice President Jonathan Nez – to talk about how tribal nations in the Southwest can work together to protect sacred sites and traditional uses of Greater Chaco Region. The APCG has been meeting for over 400 years, but the meeting between leaders of these two tribes was the first of its kind. As a result of this meeting, an intertribal workgroup consisting of Pueblo, Navajo and other Southwestern tribes will be built to ensure a strong, united voice from tribes is heard and considered in decisions that impact sacred sites and the Greater Chaco landscape.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park
Chaco Culture National Historical Park is managed by the National Park Service and was established in 1907 to preserve the ruins and artifacts associated with what was once a major center of ancestral Puebloan culture between 850 and 1250 A.D. Chaco’s ruins are preserved in a state of “arrested decay” to maintain their current structural integrity and ensure visitor safety while keeping the sites primarily natural.
Approximately 40,000 people visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park each year to experience the park through guided tours, hiking & biking trails, evening campfire talks, and night sky programs. But, you have to want to get here – the road to Chaco remains unpaved, rutted and is crossed by natural washes that can rise to dangerous flow level during flash flood events. Chaco’s remoteness and difficult access keep visitation low, preserving its serene nature and enabling visitors to truly absorb the Greater Chaco landscape.
Remoteness also contributes to Chaco’s dark night skies. Chaco was recognized as an International Dark Sky Park in 2013 and is one of only National Park Service (NPS) units to gain this distinction. Distance from urban areas and the clear dry air of the Southwest help preserve Chaco’s dark night sky and provide visitors the experience of viewing the same night sky gazed upon by Chacoan people hundreds of years ago. Special park lighting is used within the park to reduce the impacts of local light pollution and the park offers evening stargazing programs at their small night sky observatory.
The Threat of Oil and Gas Development
Despite Chaco’s rich cultural ties to past and present, its awesome archeological resources and its sensitive natural landscapes, development in the San Juan Basin continues to threaten special cultural and natural areas both within and outside of Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Technological advances in extractive industry, such as fracking, enable industry to viably expand development to lands that were previously not cost-effective to tap. Some of these lands surround Chaco or its outliers while others help create a connective corridor spanning from the Park to the Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness Study Area (WSA) and Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness.
Oil and gas development on state and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands near the park have already impacted the Greater Chaco Landscape. Infrastructure such as roads, powerlines, pipelines, pump jacks, tanks, generators, and processing plants fragment wildlife habitat and impact the cultural landscape while flaring of oil and gas wells results in air pollution and impacts the dark night skies Chaco and Four Corners region currently boast. Intense land fragmentation from industrial development has left few areas of BLM lands roadless while health issues associated with pollution are on the rise in nearby native communities.
The threat of development in the Chaco region has gained national attention. In 2008, widespread publicity generated by conservation groups nationwide pressured Cimarex Energy to delay any immediate plans for developing leases visible from the park’s Visitor Center. The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and other groups have been working to forestall development on other lands in proximity to the Park with mixed results. While this delay is certainly a step forward, there is much more work to do to ensure Chaco Canyon and the lands that surround it are protected from development into the future.
Bureau of Land Management
While much of the land in the Greater Chaco Region is tribal, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) also administers millions of acres here through the Farmington BLM Field Office. Decisions made on the BLM lands surrounding Chaco have a direct impact on the park as well as on the natural and cultural features of the Greater Chaco landscape and the many native communities in this region.
A major land-use planning effort is currently underway which will impact how lands in the Greater Chaco region are managed in the coming decades. The Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) Farmington Field Office (FFO) is in the process of amending their 2003 Resource Management Plan (RMP) to address potential expansion of oil and gas development in the Mancos/Gallup Formation that lies beneath millions of acres of federal, state, private, and tribal lands in the Greater Chaco region.
Resource Management Plans dictate broad-stroke management decisions, usually at the Field Office level, including which areas are open and closed to oil and gas leasing. Each BLM Field Office is required to update its Resource Management Plan every 20 years. Sometimes a field office will decide to revise a portion of its plan before the 20-year period, if circumstances have changed enough to warrant a partial revision – this is called a Resource Management Plan Amendment.
The Farmington Field Office is currently between the public scoping phase and the release of the Draft RMPA/EIS phase. In late 2016, in response to pressure from tribal leaders, concerned citizens and congressional representatives for more comprehensive and cooperative management of cultural resources and sacred sites in the Greater Chaco Region, the BLM proposed a unique partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in creating the plan. Through this cooperative interagency effort, the BIA will use the BLM’s Environmental Impact Statement as the analytical basis for decisions pertaining to the leasing of Tribal trust and individual Indian allotted minerals within the Planning Area.
Right now, BLM anticipates release of the draft documents for public comment sometime in the next year. In the meantime, we have an opportunity to encourage and support the BLM in working with tribal leaders, the BIA and the NPS to ensure adequate protection for Greater Chaco.
Our goal is for the Chaco of tomorrow to be a place where future generations can still experience intact cultural and natural landscapes across the Greater Chaco Region. Decisions made in the BLM’s land-use plan revision will either help or harm this outcome. Several proposals are currently being made by conservation groups, tribes and others to ensure protection for Greater Chaco. Here’s what we support:
Buffer around Chaco and outlier sites
Conservation groups have been advocating for a moratorium on leasing within a 10 to 20-mile buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park and sufficient buffers around outlier sites to protect their cultural values. With the agency currently completing an amendment to their land-use plan to address increased oil and gas development in the Mancos-Gallup Formation near the park, groups have asked that all leasing within this buffer be postponed until the plan amendment is finalized. The agency has not formally agreed to this and has instead postponed leases in the buffer zone on a case-by-case basis.
Tribal consultation and interagency cooperation in management decisions
Interagency and inter-tribal cooperation and tribal consultation by agencies are important components of ensuring Chaco’s past, present and future are protected. We support government-to-government consultation between tribal governments and federal agencies including the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and National Park Service (NPS) during actions or management plans that may affect Chaco Canyon, traditional cultural properties and sacred sites in the Greater Chaco Region. This cooperation should also consider preservation of Chaco’s dark night skies and the sensitive natural landscapes and ecology of the Greater Chaco Region.
Permanent protection of wildlands in the Greater Chaco Region
We are urging Senators Heinrich and Udall to reintroduce legislation to designate the 7,242-acre Ah-shi-sle-pah Wilderness Study Area (WSA) as wilderness and add 2,250 acres of eligible lands to the existing Bisti/De-na-zin Wilderness. Formal wilderness designation would effectively prevent oil and gas and other developments from impacting these areas. We continue to work on wilderness protection within park boundaries, as well. Approximately 20,000 acres of potential wilderness have been identified within Chaco Culture National Historical Park. On unprotected and still wild BLM lands surrounding Chaco we are advocating for administrative protection as ‘lands with wilderness characteristics’ as the Farmington BLM office drafts an amendment to their existing Resource Management Plan.
We need your help to PROTECT GREATER CHACO!
Here’s how you can contribute:
Write your community leaders. Tell Senator Udall, Senator Heinrich, and Congressman Ben Ray Lujan that protection of the Greater Chaco Landscape is important to you, is good for New Mexico, and will help protect this national treasure for all Americans.
Sign the petition. Add your name to our online petition to show BLM leaders and other decision-makers that Chaco is important to New Mexicans and all Americans.