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Chaco Canyon: preserving a cultural treasure

By Robert CahnSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / June 16, 1982

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, N.M.

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.

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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

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.