Chaco Canyon: preserving a cultural treasure

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

One can almost feel the presence of the ancient people who mysteriously departed eight centuries ago from this remote part of New Mexico. Walking about Pueblo Bonito, one of the most significant archaeological sites in the hemisphere, I found myself wondering what life was like in this earliest American ''apartment complex,'' a multistory, 800-room communal dwelling that once housed 1,200 people.

An ancient people - the Anasazi - built a relatively advanced civilization here. They cultivated the land, performed elaborate religious ceremonies in their great kivas, designed and made pottery and textiles, and constructed extensive pueblos using sophisticated masonry and architectural techniques. And without pack animals or wheeled vehicles, they developed a complex trade network connecting as many as 75 outlying communities with a system of roads. Then, at the end of the 12th century, they left without a trace.

In 1907, about 21,000 acres of public land was set aside as Chaco Canyon National Monument to preserve the remnants of this highest point of pre-Columbian pueblo civilization. Chaco's cultural interest, together with its beautiful example of high-plateau, desert terrain, makes it one of the gems in the national park system of the United States. Park faces threats from within and without

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But like nearly all the National Park Service's cultural and historical sites , as well as its natural areas, Chaco faces threats both from within and without its own boundaries. The 1980 State of the Parks Report ticked off 37 threats to Chaco's resources (the average park had 14), many the effects of current or planned energy development near the park.

The three-mile-wide and nine-mile-long park is surrounded by federally owned land and a Navajo reservation. These were long thought to constitute a protective buffer for the park. Today, however, those lands have become the leading source of trouble for Chaco. The stark reality is that Chaco sits in the midst of the San Juan Basin, which is estimated to have one-fourth of the nation's strippable coal reserves, oil and gas deposits, and one-sixth of the world's uranium supply.

Large-scale strip mining poses special problems. It could accelerate erosion at Chaco and carry toxic wastes into the park. Uranium mining could affect the quality and quantity of the ground water. Considerable amounts of air pollution are already being measured in the park, probably from the Four Corners coal-fired power plants 60 miles away.

The Santa Fe Railroad has plans for building a spur just outside the northern part of the park to transport coal. A new community of 20,000, complete with a 2 ,000-megawatt coal-burning power plant, is on the drawing boards. It would be built 16 miles from the park.

These external threats come at a time of great opportunity for the park. Years of research and exploration have uncovered evidence of more than 75 outlying prehistoric communities spread over 26,000 square miles. The discoveries hold the potential for unlocking many of the intriguing mysteries of the Chaco culture. To protect this heritage, conservationists and the National Park Service two years ago urged expansion of Chaco Canyon National Monument and its designation as a national park.

Late in 1980, Congress passed a law establishing the slightly larger Chaco Culture National Historical Park. This provided minimal protection to 33 of the outlying sites. But no protection was given the land around them, which includes thousands of other archaeological sites.

Inside Chaco's boundaries other problems are readily apparent. A rear wall of Pueblo Bonito sags so badly it has to be supported by two crude wooden braces. The wall could collapse at any moment, but repairs might cost more than $1 million. And they can't even be requested until park officials understand why the wall is collapsing and what can be done about it. But this research would cost money, too, and no funds are available. Erosion is Chaco's most urgent problem

All around the ruins signs of erosion point to the most urgent threat. Rain water pours from the steep cliffs and box canyons into narrow Chaco Wash. Many of the cottonwood trees planted years ago to reduce erosion are dying out, and the park can't get the money to replace them. The alluvial soils underlying many ruins are affected by ''piping,'' a natural phenomenon that causes soil to collapse, creating huge subsurface caverns.

Chaco superintendent Walter Herriman worries that the park faces serious damage from the many threats to its resources. Mr. Herriman, a Park Service veteran, who has been nine years in his present post, battles vigorously, often outspokenly, to save Chaco.

He saw visits to the park increase 40 percent between 1980 and 1981, while personnel to take care of the park and its visitors was cut back. The ranger staff is so thin and so busy with other duties, he says, that it is unable to prevent vandalism and theft of artifacts from the ruins. And they rarely get to patrol the outlying areas. While attending to other duties, chief ranger Ken Mabery happened upon a uranium exploration crew just outside the park, which had inadvertently bulldozed one of the ancient roads. Herriman persuaded the mining company to hire an archaeologist to work with the drilling crew and steer them away from valuable historical sites.

Despite the urgency of its problems, Chaco is not authorized to have a resource management specialist. Erosion control, air pollution monitoring, and wildlife management are done by ranger John Miller. He holds forestry and wildlife management degrees, but his job at Chaco carries only a low-paying technician rating, and he has to fit resource management in among his normal ranger duties. Funds to combat erosion may be too little, too late

Herriman was able to get $60,000 this year to begin erosion control work. But it may be too little, too late. A just-completed engineering study found that four of the park's nine major excavated ruins will be destroyed by erosion unless the park undertakes a multimillion-dollar program to control the entire Chaco watershed.

The Navajo tribe, the State of New Mexico, and several federal agencies are working on a plan to protect the 33 newly discovered outlying sites. But they will not complete the plan for two more years. And the Interior Department may at any time authorize strip mining of coal on the public lands adjoining the park.

''Chaco represents the heritage not only of the American Indians but of our counry as a whole,'' says Herriman. ''And we will miss out on understanding an important part of our roots if we let Chaco be harmed. It ought to be preserved for all future Americans to see and understand.''

The threats to the resources at Chaco may be unusually severe, but they are not unique. Historical and cultural sites comprise 60 percent of all Park Service units, and many are in immediate need of repair and protection. Independence Hall's bell tower and the Statue of Liberty need rehabilitation; Fort El Morro in San Juan, Puerto Rico, is collapsing from the pounding of the sea; and Tennessee River water is eroding vital sections of Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee. Vandalism, crime, and misuse are taking their toll on many of the historical sites in urban areas. Many cultural resources yet to be inventoried

Are the threats to the cultural areas like Chaco as severe as the threats to natural areas? I put the question to F. Ross Holland, the National Park Service associate director for cultural resources. His answer :''We don't know what we are losing. And we don't have the people even to identify all of the problems.'' I'd heard much the same comment from the stewards of Yellowstone and other natural areas.

Mr. Holland noted that the Park Service estimates it has more than 20,000 historical structures, but only 12,000 have been inventoried. And of the estimated 10 million objects in park collections - which range from the pistol John Wilkes Booth used to shoot President Abraham Lincoln to the suit George Washington wore at his inauguration - fewer than 10 percent have been cataloged.

As the number of historical areas has increased (32 units have been added in the last eight years), the number of trained professionals working with them has remained static. At some sites it has even declined. The Park Service has fewer than 100 historical architects, architectural conservators, and preservation specialists. Of these, only two-thirds are permanent employees. Only 21 qualified ''cultural resources management specialists'' are at work in the 333 National Park Service units.

Answering a hurried call in February 1981 to identify resource problems in need of immediate budget attention, the Park Service's 10 regional directors proposed 63 cultural projects. The estimated first-year cost for those projects would have been $34.6 million, if all had been fully funded. Threats to natural resources remain the prime concern

The Park Service regards preservation of cultural resources as important and necessary. But it is the growing threat to natural resources that is especially troublesome. Safeguarding the scenic and natural value of these resources has, after all, been the service's traditional mandate. As evidence of these threats mounts, pressures build on Park Service officials to put increased emphasis on resource management. But the troops are skeptical.

Rangers know that in practice natural resource management gets the short end of the stick. Law enforcement, services to visitors, and maintenance of facilities take most of their time and eat up most of the budget. Every ranger and superintendent I talked with at the annual conference of national park rangers at Squaw Valley, Calif., last October favored reversing priorities. They wanted to make protection of the natural resources No. 1, providing more funds, personnel, and training for this purpose.

In fact, resource management was the theme of this fifth annual ''Ranger Rendezvous,'' attended by 250 rangers and 25 superintendents and park administrators. They came on vacation time and paid their own expenses. For three days they delved into external threats to natural resources, management of endangered species, the problems posed by nonnative species, protection of wilderness, and other issues. National Park Service director Russell Dickenson admitted that park resources were being changed ''in ways that, if it continues, will seriously degrade the natural and cultural resources for which we are held accountable.'' He received a standing ovation for promising to give higher priority to resource management. Many rangers feel betrayed by Watt statement

The rendezvous participants responded to Interior Secretary James G. Watt's videotaped talk with silence, even though his remarks indicated support for resource protection. Talks with rangers revealed an undercurrent of resentment against the secretary. Many spoke of feeling betrayed by Mr. Watt's statements about the ''shameful'' state of the national parks. They felt those statements exaggerated the problem of deteriorating park facilities, and drew public attention away from the more serious resource protection issue.

Members of Congress got an earful on the threats to parks' natural and cultural resources early this year during hearings called by Rep. John Seiberling (D) of Ohio. The aim of the hearings was to find out what was being done in response to the 1980 State of the Parks Report, which listed hundreds of threats to park land.

Thurman Trosper of Montana, a former Park Service official and past president of the Wilderness Society, testified that Glacier National Park is threatened by a planned huge open-pit coal mine just over the border in Canada, proposed gas and oil development on all sides of the park which could disrupt wildlife movement, and by acid rain and second-home development. Energy development called a 'tightening noose'

''The noose is tightening around our national parks,'' said Terri Martin, Utah representative of the National Parks and Conservation Association. She was referring to planned energy development on public lands adjacent to park areas of the Colorado Plateau -- including tar sands extraction within Glen Canyon, strip mining adjacent to Capitol Reef, and a nuclear waste repository one mile from Canyonlands.

My own investigations bear out what these witnesses and others told the committee. Consider two national parks in California. In both cases, there's evidence of threats to the principal resources for which the parks were established.

Sequoia and Lassen: natural resources on the line At Sequoia National Park, the second oldest national park, scientists discovered in the early 1960s that putting out lightning-caused forest fires, instead of letting them burn out, interfered with the natural cycles that perpetuate the majestic 2,000-to-3,000 -year-old giant sequoias, largest of all living objects in the world. Fire removes undergrowth, prepares the soil to germinate new trees and allows them necessary light. Also, if the underbrush remains, it can lead to abnormally hot fires that could penetrate the sequoias' fire-resistant bark, which is impervious to normal fires.The Sequoia National Park management plan calls for ''prescribed'' burning in key areas as a preventive measure. But the plan has been hampered by lack of funds and personnel. Most of the $300,000 budgeted for controlled burning in 1981 had to be used to meet general park operating costs.

s of acid rain; nonnative plant species intruding on the natural vegetation; and the constant movement of visitors compacting soils at the lodges and cabins within Giant Forest, which threatens the shallow-rooted sequoias. Call to beef up resource management programs Superintendent Boyd Evison says he feels that the park cannot protect its resources adequately until natural science and resource management programs are given more attention.

''One of the greatest needs of our parks is a basic inventory of natural resources, supported by effective computer capabilities, in order to get an accurate picture of changes,'' Mr. Evison says.

Although 79,000 of the 107,000 acres in northern California's Lassen Volcanic National Park are officially designated wilderness, the park's most unique resource is its thermal activity. There are hot springs, sulfur works, fumaroles , and steam vents. Lassen Peak, a 10,457-foot-high smoldering mountain, is one of two active volcanoes in the continental United States. Its 1915 eruption was the most recent in the US until Mount St. Helens blew its top.

The chief threat to Lassen's resources is geothermal development on national forest land bordering the park. The US Forest Service wants to grant 57 leases to would-be developers. And the park's single most unique natural phenomenon, Terminal Geyser, has already been compromised. Really a steam vent, it continuously blows water and steam 50 to 75 feet into the air, a spectacular small-scale Old Faithful.

Adjoining the geyser is a 566-acre ''inholding'' -- a privately owned tract that lies within the original park boundaries. The tract could have been purchased for a small sum in 1916 when the park was established, but in those days public funds were not used for direct purchase of land for parks. Parklands were carved out of other public lands or donated by individuals. The family that owned the tract did not offer to donate it. In later years, after federal policy changed to allow the purchase of land for parks, the parcel could still have been bought at a very low price, but it wasn't.

Geothermal well drilled next to geyser

In 1962, the owner leased the mineral rights to an oil company, which sank a geothermal test well and then capped it, finding that the well had too little economic potential. Then in 1978, while the Park Service dawdled over a congressionally approved decision to condemn the area, Phillips Petroleum Corporation sent heavy equipment into this semi-wilderness. Within 50 yards of Terminal Geyser they leveled a hillside area the size of a football field, sank a 4,000-foot geothermal test well, and capped it.

Once the damage had been done, the Park Service condemned the land and now will have to pay upwards of $6 million for the property. In time the leveled hillside can be replanted and, fortunately, development was halted before Terminal Geyser was damaged. But it was a close call, and the desecrated site serves as a mute reminder of how quickly a priceless natural resource could be destroyed. Is Washington being penny-wise and pound foolish?

What nearly happened to Terminal Geyser lends ammunition to the national park advocates who insist that it is penny-wise and pound foolish not to use the more than $1 billion available for new park land in the Land and Water Conservation Fund to acquire certain lands within congressionally approved park boundaries that are vital to the parks' well-being. Most of the key properties could be paid for, with money to spare, out of one year's authorization from the fund -- if Secretary Watt's park land acquisition moratorium could be lifted and Congress approved the expenditures. Next: The urban parks -- real parks or playgrounds?

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