Chaco Canyon, Site of Priceless Ancient Puebloan Ruins, Grapples With Deferred Maintenance Backlog
This is the third in a series of four stories profiling national parks. Read our first story on Mesa Verde National Park here, our second story on Glacier National Park here, and our fourth story on Arches and Canyonlands National Parks here.
Many National Parks highlight American history or set aside unique landscapes. Few parks show visitors how native civilizations rose over centuries and impact the landscape to this day. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located in northwest New Mexico and home to 15 multi-room complexes that were the largest buildings in North America until the 19th century, is one of them.
“The park’s significance is based on the Chacoan landscape and the ancient Puebloan sites and ruins,” Denise Robertson, superintendent of the park, tells Western Wire. “You’re looking at ancient civilizations that occurred somewhere between 850 AD and 1250 AD. They are very ancient cultures, but by no means cultures that aren’t still here.”
Because of the living legacy, park staff work to maintain the appearance of the structures, they consult and partner with more than 20 area tribes, finding ways to preserve and honor the native heritage.
Significant maintenance time is spent preserving the large multi-storied Ancient Puebloan dwellings located throughout the park. Known as great houses, these structures are some of Chaco Canyon’s most stellar attractions. Because of their age, these structures may look sturdy, but are in fact vulnerable to wear and tear from cycles of freezing and thawing—“water and ice are not ruins’ friends,” says Robertson.
Roberston and other park staff are constantly working to maintain the houses. A prioritization team tracks which projects have been completed and sites throughout the park are reviewed multiple times each year to check for weathering damage. Their findings are used to prioritize projects to stabilize the houses and to maintain the broader landscapes.
The maintenance tasks themselves are made even more difficult by the specialized skills—such as plastering and brickmaking—required to keep the great houses looking as they should.
“Having a park that is over 33,000 acres and well over a dozen great houses, which doesn’t take into account the smaller sites—those sites are always part of our differed maintenance,” said Robertson.
And the park’s ancient dwellings are not the only structures in need of repair. According to NPS statistics, Chaco Canyon has more than $18 million in deferred maintenance. This includes preservation work for the ancient great houses, but also maintenance for roads and bridges, and work on employee housing.
Thankfully, Congress looks ready to take up the issue. The Restore Our Parks Act, a proposal that would set aside for NPS maintenance a portion of the royalties paid by energy and mineral developers operating on federal lands, has received strong bipartisan support in Congress. In late July, the proposal gained its 300th co-sponsor and the number has only grown since then.
The act would be particularly well suited for Chaco, where mining and drilling, as well as tourism, are important area industries. In 2017, mining and energy development were 22 percent of New Mexico’s GDP—compared to the nation-wide average of 2 percent. In fact, for surrounding towns, tourism is seen as an area for growth—and something that pairs well with industry.
Warren Unsicker, director of development for the nearby city of Farmington, NM agrees, describing the area as an under-explored gateway to the Four Corners region.
“A lot of our oil and gas workers are the ones out enjoying the great outdoors and the great amenities here,” he said. “Often they are the ones who built the roads people are using out in the great outdoors.”
For Farmington, visitors to Chaco Canyon and other nearby parks, including Mesa Verde National Park, Aztec Ruins National Monument, and the Salmon Ruins bring important business. According to one study the city conducted, Unsicker says, the area provides opportunities for every type of outdoor recreation activity—with the exception of saltwater activities. Even so, Farmington enjoys a lengthy tourism season each year, attracting both national and international visitors to the area to enjoy mountain biking, hiking, river rafting, and the beauty of both ancient history and the unique desert landscape.
“Those types of things are a huge draw for people coming to the Four Corners area who are looking for those one of a kind sites,” he said. Additional investment in park maintenance would allow even more people to enjoy a site unlike anywhere else in the world.
In this, Robertson agrees, “Each national park was set aside by Congress for its unique features. There is no other place on Earth like it. That same feeling of a special and different place is something I have been able to feel at Chaco Canyon.”