The Unique and Extraordinary Chaco Canyon

Ideas and Issues

Durango    American national parks and monuments are one of the special things about the United States, but there is no park more unique and extraordinary in innumerable ways than Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  Chaco Canyon was one of the first national monuments.  Devil’s Tower in Wyoming was the first designated by President Theodore Roosevelt in September 1906, and Chaco Canyon National Monument was designated by Roosevelt in March 1907, only six months later.  Chaco was redesignated as a historical park in 1980 and as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.

Having read a shelf of books about Chaco and its culture, it was a dream of mine to visit the canyon, and my companera and I first did so in 1981, camping there on a cool summer night under an amazing canopy of stars.  I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but being there in the solitude and immense quiet of the space with its thousand years of history, as arguably the first city of America, between these cliffs in the vastness of the southwest was as close to a spiritual experience as I can remember.  We named our son, Chaco, after the canyon in 1982, and it was priceless to be able to join him now again in visiting the park.

If you haven’t been there, you’re not alone.  Visitors are welcome, even in the diminishment of services during the pandemic, but they are not exactly encouraged.  The last 20 or more miles to enter the park in each direction are unpaved, which intimidates some, though the main road in, we noticed, had now been expanded more than half and darned if there wasn’t gravel in many places.  The Chacoan culture of the Anasazi, or old ones, as the Navajo call them, lived in the canyon for millennia, and created the remarkable architecture, engineering, and astronomy from mid-900 AD to almost 1200 AD, by best reckoning.  The kivas are wide and deep. Hundreds of rooms up to four stories were constructed in several of the villages like Pueblo Bonita.  Engineers built stairways up the canyon in some places and roads in all directions for trading and transportation.  Several thousand people lived in the canyon, though the numbers are unclear, this was likely the largest city in America in its heyday.  Archeologists compare the development of Chaco with other incredible accomplishments of that time.  Getting to the canyon and abutting it in many directions is the reservation of the Navajo Nation, and the site is sacred to them. Without argument, I can assure you that there is no place like Chaco Canyon anywhere in the United States.

Amazingly, the Trump administration is promoting allowing oil and gas leases, even in this time of a glut and drilling cutbacks everywhere in the West, in the less than 10% of lands abutting the park which are not already leased.  My family has joined local groups in the area over the last year in protesting and lobbying for the sales not to occur.

Our friends with Environment America coincidentally sent a message asking for more comments the day before Chaco and I visited the canyon again.  They cited the fact that the canyon is an International Dark Sky Park allowing unequaled access to star observation that would be impacted by 24-hour oil drilling nearby.  Ironically, in the park there was an apology that excavations and human activity on Fajada Butte had upset the balance of some rocks and made it now impossible to recalculate how the Anasazi had developed their calendar and astronomical observations a thousand years ago.  Fajada in Spanish means attack.  The butte was thought to allow early warnings against attacks.  There’s an attack happening right now on Chaco Canyon.

Add your voice to our call by making your public comment opposing the administration’s ill-conceived plan today.

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